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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.