North America

A Bazaar Alternative to The Scarborough Subway

If the transportation of the future is to be autonomous cars — or even just semi-autonomous cars — then it makes sense to build transit bazaars: locations that your car could drop you off at, where you could then find a carpool, minibus, bus, or train to take you on to your final destination. As in any good market, a transit bazaar will work best when it has a lot of “liquidity”. In other words, when it is both very large and easily accessible.

In Toronto, the obvious place to put such a transit bazaar is by the intersection of the 401 and DVP. This intersection, of Toronto’s main north-south and east-west expressways, is enormous, and it is also only one kilometre away from the Sheppard Subway’s Don Mills Station.

DVP-401 Intersection

Enter a caption

Downtown put Uptown

Part of downtown Toronto, cut-and-pasted onto the 401-DVP intersection

With that in mind, here is a 4-step proposal for an alternative to the City of Toronto’s current plan to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough Town Centre:

1. Build a major Transit Bazaar immediately northeast of the intersection (the other areas surrounding the intersection are residential neighbourhoods); extend the Sheppard Subway tunnel 1 km to reach a new subway station under the bazaar.

401 dvp

2. Build vertical (semi-)autonomous parking lots in the “urban archipelago” lands that are located within and immediately surrounding the intersection’s highway cloverleafs. These parking lots will be able to serve far more cars than any traditional vertical parking lot could: with no humans in them, they will be able to fill nearly every cubic metre of their volume with cars.

3. Extend the Sheppard subway 6.3 km to Scarborough Town Centre — but, rather than in a tunnel, extend it as a one-stop surface railway that would travel along two of the middle lanes of the 401 Highway.  This is  in lieu of, not in addition to, the current one-stop, 6.2 km subway extension plan that is set to go from Kennedy Subway Station to Scarborough Town Centre.

4. Build a 12 km cable-car directly above the Highway 401:

Scarborough Cable Car.png

The cable-car’s 7 stops, from west to east, will be: the DVP’s Transit Bazaar (with a new subway station beneath it), Warden (where the north-south Warden hydro corridor and the northwest-southeast Shropshire corridor meet), Kennedy (which will be halfway between the Agincourt GO Station and the current SRT/potential future LRT stations of Ellesmere and Midland), Scarborough Town Centre (the halfway point of the cable-car line), Centennial College, Rouge Valley Hospital, and U of T Scarborough.

Rouge Valley Gondola.png

A zoomed-in view of the cable-cars eastern stations

The cable-car will increase the transit capacity of the 401 (a place where it won’t be an eyesore, as it might be if you were to put it above an ordinary street), and will also help connect people to the Transit Bazaar and the Scarborough Town Centre “Surface Subway” station.

Why This Wouldn’t Have Made Sense in the Past, But Might Now 

In the past, this would have made little sense, as a result of the “first-mile/last-mile” problem. People do not want to live or work next to superhighways like they do next to subways, so most people using the train or cable-car would not be within walking distance of it.

In addition, building a decent train station in the middle of a highway is expensive, so it would not be affordable to have many stations—as a result, very few people would be within walking distance of it. (Cable-cars don’t have this second problem, since their stations wouldn’t need to be in the middle of the highway. This is one reason why the combination of the highway surface rail and highway cable-car could work well). As a result, such trains or cable-cars weren’t a good idea.

Toronto does, of course, have a few kilometres of surface rail in the middle of highways, namely on the Allen Expressway. However the Allen is much narrower than the 401 is, and runs in a shallow trench that made building subway stations like Glencairn and Lawrence West not too expensive. But even these stations have not been among the best at fostering urban development in the neighbourhoods around them.

lawrence westr.jpg

Lawrence West Station

Going forward, in contrast, while subways are obviously likely to remain worthwhile for a  long time yet — downtown Toronto should definitely build a new subway line, for example — surface rail’s “first-mile/last-mile” challenge is likely to be overcome, or at least greatly reduced, by technologies such as parking apps, transit apps, ride-sharing, car-sharing, semi-autonomous cars, and eventually (and especially) fully autonomous cars. As such, building a train that needs no tunnelling, and a cable-car that needs no road space, could be a great move.

Certainly it would be better than the 6.2 km one-stop tunnel to Scarborough Town Centre that is the city’s current plan (voted for by 27 of Toronto’s 43 city councillors). Almost anything would be better than that.



2 thoughts on “A Bazaar Alternative to The Scarborough Subway

  1. As I’ve sometimes said before, I think some of your proposals would be more convincing with more reasons provided! You’re clearly enthusiastic about certain things, but I could do with more to persuade those of us who don’t share the enthusiasms.

    I don’t see, for instance, why on earth anyone would replace a motorway junction with a road junction with traffic lights. People don’t build “cloverleafs” for fun – they build them because they dramatically increase throughput and improve safety (and also conveniently increase green space in and around urban areas). Get rid of them and suddenly it’s like driving in Holland (i.e. a terrifying and unnecessarily prolonged nightmare). And even the Dutch do use ramps for the major intersections.

    Nor do I see why anyone would particularly want to build a surface train in the middle of a road (unless circumstances leave no other option, and for more than brief stretches). That’s more dangerous, it almost certainly involves more disruption during construction, and as you point out it makes building a station far more expensive – not just in terms of access, but where do you put the platforms? How do you expand the station to enable more throughput and more interchanges, if you begin by boxing yourself in? Mass consumer stations, even just platform areas (assuming you put the main station outside the roadway and provide a bridge to the stations), are immense things. You’d presumably be limited only to some sort of light rail, rather than the passenger numbers you can have on an underground – but that in turn only really makes sense with more stops, which means more of the more-expensive stations. And it takes away lanes of the road, which, in a future with increased road traffic, doesn’t seem to make much sense.

    [More specifically, you’re not allowed to just stick an underground at roadside. In order to preserve the isolation of the ROW, you generally have to put up massive walls around it (which is why non-underground sections are usually still below or above street level)]

    And why a cable car? Their passenger density is terrible. Why not an elevated rail? [or, in large towns, undergrounds]. Shorter transit times and more passengers per hour, and safer too. Cable cars are great where they’re an attraction in their own right, where small numbers of people want to travel short distances slowly, like up a mountain. Or over a river. But for general commuting, they’re horribly inefficient. And harder to integrate – you need hard stop-and-start intersections with other transport forms, and their lower density results in bottlenecks at entry. [We have a new cable car in London. It cost 60 million, and it’s been calculated that there are 4 regular users.]


    I do actually think there’s a potential place for cable cars. But it’s earlier in the process: door-to-station transport. Well, not literally ‘door’. But in bringing people to the station. To cover an area, you’d be looking at focusing on number of routes rather than on density of passengers, so cable cars could be appropriate – essentially, replacements for busses, with higher initial costs (constructing the lines) but faster travel (you can escape the traffic, and you can have more travel pods than buses so average wait times can be reduced).


    However, there’s the ‘future’ part. Self-driving cars make conventional public transport less appealing. They will massively increase driving safety and comfort, and they’ll decrease travel times (by reducing traffic by managing flow more efficiently), and as you point out they’ll reduce the pain of parking. And they’ll make it cheaper – no expensive ‘the driver might be an idiot’ insurance required. What would I rather do – walk ten minutes down the road, wait, get on the light rail, reach my station, navigated the crowded station, wait, transfer to the overcrowded, uncomfortably hot tube, get off the tube, reach the surface, and walk ten minutes to my destination? Or walk out my door, sit in my own personal one-person luxury chauffered fewer-traffic-jams bus, lounge around for a bit, get out at the door of my office, and have the electronic valet take my vehicle away for me?

    Longer term, the logical end-point is for intermodal integration with the self-driving small car as the common denominator. That is, your car will drive you to the “railway station”, but instead of getting out and going on a train, your car will drive onto the train. That’s obviously not great for density, but it doesn’t have to be, if you make the trains much, much longer. Since you’d not be having humans step on and off the train, the train wouldn’t have to stop at each ‘station’ – indeed, roads could flow continuously onto ‘trains’ (i.e. moving roadways). The next step being that the ‘train’ is just a train of self-driving cars – the car would clip onto the rails and take up the provided power, probably joining up with other cars to share their engines in a more efficient mode (or attach to dedicated high-efficiency engine-cars). this is all too complicated to trust to humans and luck, but well-managed computers could do it.


    Then again, we should be careful drawing conclusions about the future based on what would be sensible. For instance, you’d think that, logically, people in cities wouldn’t have their own cars. There’d be a collective pool of government-owned cars, and you’d call them up when needed (or walk to a nearby car-station). You’d probably pay per car, so groups of people at the car station would club together to share the cost by sharing rides. The idea of every single person needing their own car (with massively underutilised capacity), with each car needing a dedicated parking space at the person’s home, and then more dedicated parking space at the person’s prime location office even though it would just be sitting there all day, with each car only used for a tiny fraction of the total time, makes no sense whatsoever economically. It’s far more efficient to have a single pool of cars stored in relatively cheap locations, each car being used as much as possible throughout the day.
    But that hasn’t happened, for a variety of logistical and political reasons.

    So it’s very easy to predict, for example, a similar system being developed for driverless cars, and, sure, it would make a lot of sense. But it would already make sense without the driverless cars and it doesn’t happen. So…

    [btw: what you call a ‘transit bazaar’ I’m more used to calling ‘a train station’!]

  2. Hey, thanks again for the long and thoughtful response! It’s much appreciated, really.

    I think we’re more or less in agreement about what we would like or might expect to see happen. I agree with you that, if and when fully autonomous cars become common, it is going to be very tempting for people to stop using public transit (and remember, I’m talking about North America here, so most people already don’t even use public transit). But I think we agree that providing the option of public transit will still be desirable.

    In the long run you might be right that having some sort of car-train will be the way things will turn out, I’m trying to talk more about the medium-term. In other words, I’m trying to envision a system that could function even if only semi-autonomous rather than fully autonomous cars become common — or if only fully autonomous cars rather than the type of car-train hybrid you described become common.

    You’re right that what I’m calling a transit bazaar is basically just a train station — but again, remember that I’m talking about North America here: our train stations tend not to be nice, spacious, and important like the one’s in Europe do, so if I was to say train station it would not conjure up the most appealing image. Also, while the transit bazaar I’m describing would definitely need to have a train station in it, it would be much more about ride-sharing: coordinating carpools, mini-busses, busses, etc., whether fully or semi-autonomous. As a result it would also ideally cover a territory that is larger than typical train stations; the intersection I talked about in this article is far larger than any train station.

    On the issue of getting rid of the highway cloverleaf, I agree with you that it may be a bad idea — and certainly is unlikely to be politically palatable — which is why I tried to say that the rest of the plan could still work without doing it. And even if it was a good idea in this one case, in order to free up a gigantic amount of land at the confluence of the city’s two main highways, it would still be the only place I would advocate it: I would not advocate of getting rid of the city’s many other highway cloverleafs. ..At the risk of seeming like I’m trying to have it both ways here, I’ll say that, with autonomous or semi-autonomous cars, having a four-way highway stop instead of a cloverleaf could be safer and less frustrating than it would otherwise be with only traditional cars on the road.

    On your point about it already having made sense to have car-sharing in the past, I think you’re really speaking as a European. People here tend to live in sparely populated suburbs (even much of our urban areas are not densely populated), and the weather is not temperate: it’s very hot in summer and cold in winter. People want their own cars in their driveways; nobody walks (generally speaking). It is only now, with the new technologies that have sprouted up, that car-sharing may have a chance. (Though even today relatively few people use services like car2Go in North America). I think car-sharing will only become huge if and when cities allow the cars to drive themselves directly to people’s homes: whether by using fully autonomous cars in the daytime, or by allowing semi-autonomous cars to drive themselves in the dead of night when people are asleep.

    On the main point, about putting trains at surface level in the middle of a superhighway, I agree with you that today it would make no sense to do so. The plan I proposed would not actually include any stations in the middle of a highway at surface level — it would have one underground station at the transit bazaar and another underground at Scarborough Town Centre. (If you’ve never heard of Scarborough, it’s where Mike Meyers grew up). More generally, though, the introduction of autonomous or semi-autonomous cars could make trains in highways worthwhile, because it overcomes the “first-mile/last-mile” problem, which means you don’t need as many train stations, and you don’t need to build high-rise buildings immediately overlooking the superhighway (where no-one wants to live or work) to justify the expense of the train.

    Yes, of course, there would be high costs associated with constructing the train, especially with constructing stations in the middle of a highway. And the train would take up at least two, if not three or four, lanes of the highway. But if you compare that to the costs of building a new subway line, and building underground subway stations, a surface train would still be very cheap.

    This is also directly related to the cable-car issue. I agree with you that cable-cars have very low densities, and as a result are mainly good for dealing with things like mountains. And definitely the Thames cable-car was terribly done: it’s an eyesore that crosses a river that is already crossed by many bridges.

    The cable-car here would not be an eyesore, since it would travel pretty low to the ground in the middle of an 100-metre-wide highway. The reason it would be superior to a raised train is that any raised train would have to be very high off the ground, in order to pass over the trucks that travel on bridges that cross the highway. At such a height, a raised train would be extremely expensive and an eyesore.

    A cable-car, on the other hand, would travel lower to the ground, then ascend higher to clear the highway’s bridges.(Though that would still be much lower to the ground than London’s cable-car). The purpose of the cable-car would be, mainly, to help make it easier to access the surface train in the middle of the highway, since cable-car stations can be built relatively cheaply, given that they do not need to be located in the middle of the highway like the train stations would. As an added benefit, cable-cars would increase the capacity of the highway in general, by about 2000-4000 passengers per direction per hour. A cable-car/surface train/superhighway combo would be especially useful in areas where there is a topographical barrier, like a river or escarpment, that is next to part of the highway, which the cable-car could then cross.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s