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.