East Enders finding transit has become the bitter way

Coxwell station during the morning commute. PHOTO: Anna Killen

A home close to the subway was top priority for Ann-Marie Colacino and her husband when they were house-hunting in 2013. And after enduring several bidding wars they finally got one a 10-minute walk to Coxwell station.

But less than two years after becoming my neighbours, they gave up on transit to ride bikes to and from their downtown jobs.

“I enjoy biking more because there are no delays, it takes less time, it’s free, it offers good daily exercise and I don’t have to battle the crowds,” Colacino says, adding that the Bloor-Danforth at Coxwell isn’t as crazy as trying to get on a Yonge train at Eglinton, which she used to do, but it’s still pretty bad.

Four years ago I became a year-round bike commuter for similar reasons; the breaking point came when four days in one week I found myself watching full trains pass from an increasingly crowded Coxwell platform. I’ve heard similar tales in the hood and on the Danforth Jane’s Walk I’ve led for the past decade.

A man living near Woodbine told me he moved from north Scarborough because he was sick of commuting by car; he shortly thereafter “got crowded out” and sheepishly admits he’s back driving to Front and Spadina. I met a woman recently who switched to cycling from the subway because of crowding; she’s now steeling herself “to tough it out through the coming winter.”

Anecdotal evidence? Sure. But data unearthed for Beach Metro News indicate these aren’t isolated cases. East End transit use has been in steep decline for three decades, and some transit professionals we’ve spoken with say none of Metrolinx’s and the TTC’s planned expansions will help much.

Between 1986 and 2011, there was a 4.5% population rise and a 5% increase in people going downtown from Planning District 6 (roughly the four old city and East York wards that abut Danforth and its subway).  But the TTC’s share of those trips fell more than 11% while auto usage rose 9.2%, according to the 2011 Transportation Tomorrow Survey (conducted every five years by municipal and provincial governments and their agencies; the 2016 study is in the works).

The survey shows just 52% of PD6 residents use transit to go downtown – the lowest percentage for any planning district in 416. (Scarborough’s four PDs average 71.5%, and it’s up to 80% in some North York PDs.)

Overall Bloor-Danforth ridership is up 25.5% since 1987, and Kennedy station has seen a 16% rise, but the numbers of people getting on and off at the eight stations between Warden and Pape (inclusive) is down significantly.

While many in the East End have long pined for a downtown relief subway line, as currently planned it’s likely to help only those using Pape and stations west. Meanwhile, the approved and funded plan to extend the subway to Scarborough Town Centre – if successful in adding riders – will only worsen crowding.

The picture gets uglier when we bring surface routes into the calculus. East of the Don, we’re more reliant on fewer east-west routes; there’s no King car, no transit on Dundas and no equivalent of Wellesley and Harbord.

The 506 streetcar, running along Gerrard, carried 58,000-plus weekday riders in 1987, more than any other TTC surface route. It has since taken a 21.5% service-hours cut and lost 31.7% of its ridership. The Queen 501 had an 8% service cut over the same period and lost 9.3% of its riders. The first east-west route north of Danforth, the Mortimer 62 bus, isn’t on a scale with the streetcars, but it took a 37% service cut and lost 46.5% of its riders.

Cuts hit even the Coxwell 22, perennially the TTC’s best economic performer, and the Greenwood 31, usually among the top five in that category.

It’d be wrong to jump to conclusions about causes and effects – crowding, service cuts, short turns, demographic changes and fare increases well in excess of inflation are all in play. But prior to policy changes in recent decades – which have included abandoning the international best practice of expanding transit from the middle out – urban routes yielded low-hanging fruit essential to subsidizing the whole system. Now we’re content to leave it rotting on the trees. Everybody loses.

East End residents should also know that, from recent discussions I’ve had, the issues and numbers in this column seem to surprise city planners and Metrolinx staff, the people advising politicians on transit. They assume we’re already in a great spot for public transit, though market trends indicate otherwise.

We’re just getting started on assessing needs and opportunities in the East End. Next time, we’ll look at plans in the works and how they could serve us all better.

Stephen Wickens, a life-long East End resident and a semi-retired journalist, has worked four-plus decades at four Toronto newspapers. He’s on stakeholders’ advisory panels for the Downtown Relief Line and city planning’s Danforth Avenues study as well as chair of Danforth East Community Association’s Visioning Committee. This is the first in a series of columns about urban issues in the East End of Toronto. We thank transit advocate/blogger Steve Munro and transportation data analyst David Crowley for help tracking down numbers for this column.

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15 comments

For someone who is transit-friendly, it’s tough to deal with all these variables. I live in the Upper Beach and work downtown. I don’t enjoy driving in the city (other than being able to seriously groove to music!) and resent sitting in log-jam traffic. I actively compare minutes of travel between my options, all of which I exercise. It takes me 25 min. to get to work by bicycle, 20 minutes by car, and 35-50 (depending on waiting time) by streetcar/bus. It is cheaper for me to drive than to take transit. It is free and faster (or near-equivalent) to go by bike. So, I bike as often as I can and appreciate the exercise. I resent the loss of time when I take transit, but would gladly replace the car with the TTC if it were competitive with regard to time and money. Truth is that it is not. My local streetcar stop is a “timed stop” that never seems to have a car there when the schedule expects one, so when I do take the streetcar I end up regretting that I lost 10 minutes standing when I could have just cycled to work. The bike truly has become the better way for me. I used to be a weekend casual cyclist and have become out of frustration someone who uses the bicycle as a truly viable mode of transportation. As a result I find that any slight improvement in bike path infrastructure (I’m lookin’ at you Dundas/Logan St. bike box!) is welcomed with gleeful handclaps and cheers like I never experienced as a stop-n’-go, stressed-out driver or glum, world-weary, shoe-gazing TTC…

Hey David: I just had your letter (above) in the Dec. 13 Beach Metro News. While I agree with almost everything you said, I think there is one error. You say twice in different ways that travelling by car is cheaper than using the TTC. I think that is likely correct if you are comparing fares – about $6.00 round trip, with the price of gas for the same trip. But you must consider the total cost of ‘your ride’. Experts say that the total cost of car ownership (likely for a late model car) is about $10,000 per year. Dividing that figure by 365 days gives a daily cost of your car of about $27.40 per day, whether you drive it or leave it in the driveway. That is a lot more than $6.00! Just sayin’.

You’re right, of course. But yes, I’m only comparing the cost of a ride to work by car fuel vs. transit. If the choice is whether to own a car or only take transit, there is no question which is cheaper over a year. But if you already have a car, or need one for other purposes anyway, then taking transit is more expensive than the fuel you use with the car for a day’s travel. That’s the dilemma.

I was a TTC operator for 25 years , mostly in the east end of the city . I drove bus for 10 years , from as far out as the Port Union Go station to all the way to West Mall in the west and as far as 16th ave. north , and all the way south in the down town core. I have sat on a bus that doesn’t move for 10 minutes or more because of traffic while doing one of the down town routes, and it was for no other reason other then shear volume . A few years back when the Leafs were playing and the Blue Jays were still playing the traffic was so bad that in a normal night I would do 5 round trips I would end up only doing 2 . That was a few years ago, I can only imagine how it is now. City planner have to start taking responsibility for there decisions. You can tare down a couple of single dwelling housing units and then put up a 30 story condo high rise and expect it not to have any affect on the immediate area. Toronto has been trying to catch up to the rising population and the out of check developers that have never considered what they leave in there wake of construction . Not only do they flood the area with thousands of more people in a matter of a year or two , the strain on hydro and sewage is considerable. Sure the tax bass is broadened but it in know way would ever catch up to the amount of money it would take to bring all of the utilities up to date . Toronto needs to stop trying to catch up and start getting ahead of the game. When we plan for a new transit line to…

I am a daily (multiple trips per day) TTC user. I have noticed that over the last 10 years service has declined forcing me to take more cabs. I rely on the 501 at Neville Loop, but often it doesn’t arrive for more than 30 minutes, then 3 streetcars arrive at once. I get feed up (or frozen in winter) then flag a cab. My ridership hasn’t declined, my ability to use the service has declined.

How is that the riders fault?

I have lived in the west end, near Bloor & Lansdowne, since 2007, but my experience is similar. I used to be able to take the subway from Lansdowne station to downtown in a reasonable amount of time, but now I am often forced to let multiple trains go by before I can get on one. I takes me approximately 20 minutes to ride my bike downtown to work, but including walking and changing trains, it’s on average about 40 minutes by subway – plus the inevitable delays. Because of this discrepancy, which has gotten much worse in the past 9 years, I’m getting a lot bolder about riding my bike on bad weather days and in the winter. While it’s nice to save the $6/day on tokens and get the exercise, it’s not just a preference – I often just don’t have enough time to take the subway in the morning, so I have to rely on my bike.

I live at Main Street and bike 14km to work weather permitting. I am a 5 minute walk from main subway where I often have to wait two or three trains to be able to get on and then it’s a 15m walk to work from Bathurst because the streetcar is a sardine can every single day. This is pretty unacceptable but better than when I lived at broadview and Gerard where my choice was the 506 (good luck jamming onto that every 15m) that would take 45-60 min just to get to Bathurst/college or I could go up to broadview station, pray I could squeeze on, then have to walk back down.

The east side is greatly underserviced to say the least.

As a Beach resident, I find the double fare for the downtown express bus on Queen totally unjust. Why is it that in the future a rider will be able to take a grade-separated subway from STC all the way downtown (or further) on a single fare, but an ‘express’ bus from the Beach on a surface route in mixed traffic is a double fare?? Maybe the solution to the east-end transit problem is simply more express (i.e. limited stop) buses at REGULAR fares. This would help entice riders off the Bloor-Danforth subway while making more efficient use of existing roads and vehicles.

I live in Cabbagetown and it’s nowhere near as bad as it is for people east of the Don but travelling west is about to get a whole lot worse.

First it was narrowing streets like Wellesley from four lanes to two. Then it was restricting turns on red lights. So, yes, bad for drivers — which includes TTC buses. But then followed construction on Carlton and Gerard at the same time. There’s a condo going up next to Wellesley station and the developer has co-opted the east-to-west traffic lane, clogging an already congested route. Another condo is about to go up at Church and Carlton. And there’s construction underway on the west side of Yonge just north of College. Richmond was a dog’s breakfast for the duration of the summer.

This city has quickly become unworkable. Transit is too expensive, crowded, and infrequent. Driving in peak traffic is impossible. So that leaves cycling. Where cars are still parking in dedicated bike lanes with no consequence. When road repairs are done, there’s zero thought given to accommodating cyclists — witness Wellesley, Gerard, or Richmond eliminating bike lanes for the duration of those repair projects.

We’ve been fortunate to have had a mild winter thus far so that casual riders can use their bikes alongside the year-rounders. Is that our transit strategy? Pray for no snow so that TTC riders can cycle?

Have planners and bureaucrats been ignoring this information all these years? Have our politicians been asleep at the wheel for decades? Can SmartTrack be of any help to us in the east end? Do some followup stories.

Biking doesn’t work for everybody, all the time, and it is sometimes dangerous, (including streetcar tracks and some of us cyclists). But Danforth/Bloor have been seen as being the #1 best place for an east-west bike lane, as recently as 1992, and a bit of that study, that part of Bloor between Sherbourne and Church survived in to the 2001 Bike Plan. It remains undone, even though it would cost a whopping $25,000 to repaint the lane lines, and the local Councillor and residents apparently support it happening. It’s not a question of money: the Annex-area pilot costs c. $500,000 and almost everybody of all types on Council voted to light up the Viaduct for a couple of million or so, and it was borrowed!!

So bikes are the competition to the TTC, and both they and the City are kinda quite happy to keep the competition unsafe because they make money from all the sardines and bad core service to support suburban services, and the costs of cars to us all are hidden in various budgets, unlike the TTC, though Vancouver found that their subsidy to cars was 7x that to transit 20 years ago. It’s Caronto the Carrupt, and we’re dominated by the suburbs who will beggar the core and keep on endangering the vulnerable road users, because they can. And as carruption is almost global, the province and the feds aren’t going to be too much better, regardless of the costs. The Suspect Subway Extension is Bad (it’d be sorta OK if we had the cars pay the same degree of user pay as transit…

Wow, right on. When are we as a society going to say NO to any more ‘single occupant cars’ on our roads. It is time to treat cars like cigarettes – ban the lying advertising (never ever show a traffic jam) that is everywhere on TV and in print. Cars should be painted as completely undesirable means of transportation, not even the electric and self-driving ones – because they take up too much space! I want our landscapes back!

I like this idea…but it’s not realistic with our overall societal focus on doing more with less time. My job in health care mainly involves home visits. I cannot use transit because it would take me too long and I would see less clients. We are definitely expected to produce more, see more people with less resources at our disposal. But I do like the idea. When I lived in the Netherlands many years ago, I recall they instituted car less Sundays. Of course they have proper bike lanes, mandatory education on riding a bike, their own traffic signals that car drivers have to attend to…I would support a car less rotating day of the week for sure

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