Toronto eyes city-wide light-rail network

Government leaders in Toronto are planning to install a network of light-rail lines that will greatly expand transit service across Canada’s largest city. Mayor David Miller and the Toronto Transit Commission have championed a 75-mile “Transit City” network which will extend light-rail tracks into parts of Toronto that currently depend mainly on private vehicles.

The light-rail lines will connect well with existing subway and streetcar lines, thus tying the newer, outlying sections of the city into the pre-1945 urban area and encouraging more people to ride transit.
Construction is scheduled to start this spring on the first of the new light-rail lines, Sheppard Avenue East. Robert Freedman, the city’s urban design director, says a tunnel will be dug for the central portion of one of the new light-rail lines — on Eglinton Avenue, a major-east-west corridor. Everywhere else, light rail will operate in dedicated lanes in the center of the roadway.
Freedman and his urban design staff are working with authorities on the design and development of a high-quality pedestrian environment around light-rail stops. “The more attractive the streetscaping along the routes, and particularly at the transit stops, the better the odds of attracting more riders,” he says.
Expenditures for construction, rail cars, and other elements of the system could total $11 billion (Canadian), by one estimate. The cost will be borne by the city and the Metrolinx provincial transportation agency. Only a portion of the money that’s needed has been appropriated as of now.
The federal government also has been asked to contribute. Nothing has yet been promised by Ottawa, but “with the recent tough economic times, the federal government wants to find ‘construction-ready infrastructure projects,’ so some federal funding may emerge,” Freedman says.
Toronto’s aging fleet of red streetcars will be bolstered by adding modern, articulated, accessible vehicles that are about 100 feet long and are able to seat 260 to 270 passengers — twice as many riders as most current Toronto streetcars. Environmental assessments of the new lines will take about two years, followed by construction lasting three to five years — or longer if the funds arrive more slowly, according to Freedman.

Street redesign
Freedman, city engineer John Mende, and others have been working on details for the streetscapes, and anticipate that where streets and sidewalks are ripped out and rebuilt, the new construction will often include bicycle lanes and four sidewalk zones: edge zone, furniture/planting zone, pedestrian clearway, and “marketing zone.” The marketing zone is typically where sidewalk cafes and outdoor sales displays are placed.
Among North American metropolitan areas, Toronto is second only to New York in residents’ reliance on  public transit, according to Freedman. Nonetheless, Toronto still has a long way to go in weaning residents from automobiles. Freedman says the interconnected grid of high-order transit envisioned by the Transit City initiative “has the potential to transform the way people move around the city.” The new lines will also serve “Priority Neighborhoods” — mostly first-ring suburbs and apartment neighborhoods where the majority do not own cars.
The City’s Planning/Urban Design Division, in partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute, is organizing a major symposium this fall that will deal with transit and city form. Speakers from transit-oriented cities in North America, South America, and Europe will discuss the form and density of development necessary to support great transit.