Ossington Station, photo by flickr user tcp909

[This is part of theTransit Report Cardseries, in which writers generalize wildly based on short and limited experience with another city’s transit system.]

Segments ridden:
Yonge-University-Spadina (Yellow) Line: Glencairn – Union Station; Union Station – St. Clair
Bloor-Danforth (Green) Line: Landsdowne-Victoria Park
Various Street cars and buses.
Time ridden: Four days.

Scope: A-
The Toronto Subway has very good service where it does go, but that covers a fairly limited area. There are twomain lines, one that goes north-south in a “U” shape, and another east-west. There are also two short spur lines.

This Google maps overlay shows the area the subway covers. Each subway station has bus or streetcar routes that travel perpendicular to the line the subway station travels, forming a wonderful transit grid. This map shows the overall coverage, including buses and streetcars. If there isn’t a subway station or a streetcar line where you’re going, you’ll have find the nearest station, and then take the bus that travels perpendicular to the line and to your destination.

Service: A
Service is very frequent. Most buses had frequencies under ten minutes except late at night – many ran 24 hours – and the subway comes every few minutes.  Most stations had electronic signs to tell you when the next train was coming, but they were a mix of new LCD screens and some 30 years old or older, and many of the older models didn’t seem to work. Major bus locations also had next bus signs.

Routing: A
As far as I could tell (feel free to correct me in the comments), there are really only four major highways in Toronto (401, 427, 404 and “the Gardiner”), and those are mainly served by “bus rapid transit”, a service similar to ST express buses. Many of the rest of the bus lines are oriented around the subway, and the subway is mostly oriented in cardinal directions (N-S, E-W).

Grade/ROW: A
The subway is entirely grade-separated, and the streetcars have their own lanes in some places, as do some of the buses.

Downtown Toronto is a sea of modern skyscrapers, and there are many older, dense neighborhoods. Some outlying areas have become densely urbanized, such as North York. However, I was surprised single family homes with yards across the street from stations such as Ossington, just five stations from Bay station in the heart of downtown.

Culture: A
A surprisingly large number of people live in Downtown Toronto itself – apparently most of the over 2,000 skyscrapers in the city are residential – and the Toronto subway the beats the DC Metro for the 2nd most ridden rapid transit system in Anglophone North America at 910,300 people per day. The buses carry another 1.25 million, with streetcars carrying 300,000. Most commuters in the city either take transit or carpool. In the greater Toronto area, 22.2% of commuters take transit, according to the Canadian Census, compared to around 7.3% here in the Seattle area.

Toronto streetcar
Toronto Streetcar, photo by flickr user r h

Fares for the Toronto subway are $3.00, but do not scale with distance. As hinted above, bus and train fares are transferable, but ask for one if your first ride is on a bus. Day, week and month passes are available, and the day pass pays for itself in three trips. Currently the fares are cash and tokens, but there is an on-going roll out of a “Presto” card, similar to Orca.

Like Montreal, every station has a station agent to give directions and sell tickets. Unlike Montreal, all of these agents speak English. The Toronto Transit commission also provides a One Bus Away type service with an SMS service, a phone service and a website, with the information posted at each bus stop.

The streetcars are great for tourists; they give a nice way to see the city and allow quick and easy boarding. They do tend to get very crowded, and since they are mainly located in and around the downtown area, they can get stuck in some pretty heavy traffic. On maps the lines are numbered and not named, so they are a bit confusing to ride. Toronto has a “transit city” plan to expand the streetcars as LRT into other parts of the city, as money to fund subway expansions has been hard to come by.

Toronto does poorly for accessibility, though better than Montreal. According to their website, 29 of the 69 stations are wheel chair accessible, and most of the buses are equipped with lifts or ramps.  The streetcars are all heritage, and as such, none of them are accessible.

Toronto has done a remarkable job integrating its bus, streetcar and subway routings. With only three subway routes, getting the most bang for the buck was clearly a priority. At stations, the buses generally wait for trains to arrive before departing, and often the buses stop inside the station’s turnstile making transfers a breeze. All but one bus route operated by the Toronto Transit Commission stops on a subway route somewhere, and most were designed to extend the subway’s reach beyond the area it serves directly.

The lesson I took away from my Toronto transit experience was just how important intermodal transfers are to the success of a transit system. 69 stations for a city the size of Toronto isn’t particularly impressive, but the ridership really is. We should all pay very close attention to the bus transfers at future Link stations, they can be make huge difference in the rider experience and ultimately the success of a system.

41 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Toronto”

  1. I have ridden the Toronto system a few times while visiting, and fully agree with everything Andrew has written.

    On the whole, the system is somewhat disappointing given Toronto’s size and large ridership – they really haven’t invested much in infrastructure in the past 40 years. However, the best features are the easy and seamless transfers between the subway and the connecting streetcar & bus lines. At very many locations the streetcars and buses enter into the fare-paid area of the subway station so there is no fare payment or checking needed when transferring in either direction, which really speeds up the transfers and loading of buses and streetcars. In addition in all of these locations there are no streets to be crossed – just like the subway is “grade-separate” so is the transfer. Also it is generally possible to wait in a weather-protected, heated area while waiting for the bus or streetcar. It is a great transfer experience. It is infinitely superior to the transfer experience at Mt. Baker station or what is planned for the UW Link station, and even superior to the transfer at the Tukwila Int’l Blvd station, where the buses have to snake through the parking lot and make 3 left turns before getting onto the street – in Toronto, the bus area would have had its own intersection with Int’l Blvd, maybe with transit priority, so a single turn, and no overlap with the P&R.

    1. In the past 40 years, Toronto added the Scarborough RT and the Sheppard Line, plus some Streetcar ROW, and in addition to improved GO Transit service. And that’s just from the top of my head; perhaps others can add more?

      1. I know what Toronto’s done. It includes building some reserved streetcar right of ways, including St. Clair & Spadina, which have improved those lines. However, it’s a modest investment compared to both the growth of the GTA (Greater Toronto) and to the transit investments they’d made in the previous decades. Mayor David Miller’s Transit City initiative would have created some significant new investment, but that’s all in question now as a result of the election of Rob Ford who is anti-transit and pro-auto.

        I think Toronto wishes they’d used a standard technology on the Scarborough line – they are stuck in a dead-end proprietary technology and may be forced to spend a significant sum to rebuild it.

        They have expanded GO rail, but most of the lines are purely commuter lines (mornings inbound, evenings outbound.) There are several that could be electrified and support frequent bi-directional service, but the will and money aren’t there to do it. (Frankly, Caltrain and Sounder on the Seattle-Tacoma route should also be electrified and become all-day bi-directional but that’s not happening any time soon either.)

      2. Regarding Scarborough RT: I’m sure there was a ton of pressure to have a SkyTrain-technology line operating in the Province of Ontario given that it was a product of UTDC at the time and UTDC was owned by the province. Remember that when it was built, Vancouver only had the one original (now Expo) line, that only went as far as, I think, New West.

        Besides, the real shame of the TTC is their messing with their font:


      3. Oh man you are totally write right, the old font is so much better than the new one, which looks like something that comes free with windows.

  2. Interesting about the density. I love street view, so I dropped down onto Queen St E and looked at all the street life. Mmm, Mr Tasty. But it confirms that at least this close-in part of Toronto is mostly 2-storey buildings with just a few larger ones. I wonder if that’s based on zoning or perhaps land availability?

    Based on a quick look at Wikipedia, Toronto is less dense by the numbers (10,287.4/sq mi) than Vancouver (13,817.6/sq mi) or large older US cities like Chicago (12,557/sq mi) or Philly (11,457/sq mi) though of course beats Seattle (7,361/sq mi) or Phoenix (3,071.8/sq mi).

    1. There is also that quirk in the old Toronto tax code whereby house-lots were taxed based on the length of street they faced which led to a number of neighborhoods with long-thin property parcels which may be difficult to assemble for other projects.

    2. Toronto has a lot of its suburbs within city limits. Of course, the suburbs have a higher density than American suburbs because of smaller lot sizes, and the high-rises that are sprinkled everywhere. The inclusion of such a large amount of the suburbs makes it look less dense than it would be if only the inner portions were counted.

      Since the 1980’s or so, Toronto has filled up, and development began to occur outside the city limits, in separate municipalities (called “the 905”, after the area code). The development of these new suburbs has been detrimental to transit ridership because they have separate bus networks, incompatible fares with the TTC, and are less frequent than the TTC buses. These suburban agencies are now developing new bus rapid transit and light rail lines, as well as GO Transit’s proposed “regional subway” (the commuter trains will have frequent, all-day service), however the lack of integration may have negative effects on ridership growth.

      The fare problem is likely the biggest challenge, because fares are high, which means without bus passes, you could be paying $6 or $7 just because you crossed a line between the “city suburbs” and the “outer suburbs”.

  3. Australian planner Paul Mees’ new book, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age (Earthscan, 2010) is dedicated to the proposition that the pursuit of density as the key to transit is misguided (and doomed to failure culturally). He argues that intermodal transfers and a grid are the keys to making transit successful in the world we actually have, and the history and analysis of the Toronto system is one of his central examples of success. (Switzerland too). He spends a lot of time on density and ridership; very little on costs.

    1. I should check that out. Toronto changed my perspective on mode transfers. I used to think forced transfers were a ridership killer, but it can be done correctly.

    1. “Conservative” is not an accurate description of the right-wing road warrior Ford, who unfortunately got elected to be Mayor of Toronto.

  4. On the whole, Toronto has a surprising amount of sprawl, and low-density, auto-oriented development. Surprising because it is has good transit and high usage. But outside of their downtown core, the density doesn’t appear very high.

    1. I wasn’t surprised by the sprawl exactly – it’s not worse than, say, Vancouver in that way – but I was surprised how low-density it was right next to train stations.

    2. Fortunately, the Oak Ridges Moraine acts as a sort-of urban growth boundary, but the suburbs are just skipping past those into even more far-flung corners of the region.

      Toronto has tried to make the main roads throughout the city more walkable through the “Avenues” plan, which envisions mid-rise buildings creating street walls for miles. Developers prefer to build high-rises though.

      Toronto has succeeded at making good “downtowns” though. Downtown Toronto itself is one of the most vibrant in North America, and is always improving. There are three suburban centers, located on the subway system, that are doing alright. North York Centre is doing the best, with lots of office towers and condos. Scarborough Centre is doing alright. It is situated around a mall, but has seen some high-rise development. Etobicoke Centre has only a few office towers, but a major development may happen soon that will add a lot of office and residential space. Most of the high-rises located outside of the main centers are generally low-income.

      Many of the suburbs have been trying to attract high-rise development as well. Mississauga has a ridiculously large “downtown” around the Square One Mall, and Brampton, Vaughan, and Markham have all been trying to develop regional centers. These areas don’t have subway access (Vaughan will in 2015), but a regional busway along the 407 will eventually connect all 4 of them, and they all have BRT or LRT lines in planning or construction.

  5. “Unlike Montreal, all of these agents speak English.”

    But do the Toronto agents speak French? And did you really have trouble with finding Montreal MTC agents who did not speak English?

    1. “2nd most ridden rapid transit system in Anglophone North America”

      Given that Montreal is 50% Anglophone, what is the definition of “Anglophone North America”?

      1. In the larger Montreal Census Metropolitan Area, 67.9% of the population speak French at home, compared to 16.5% who speak English.

        Not Anglophone.

      2. I think I got into this last time about the Francophone thing and don’t want to do that again. Some people in Montreal speak English, good for them.

      3. Section 133 of the British North America act trumps any actions of the “National” Assembly seated at Quebec City.

        Montreal itself has no official language, and the Metro, until the very recent extension of Line 2 over the Back River, has not served any station outside Montreal save for the spur line to the 1967 Wolrd’s Fair site that continued over to the south shore (Longueuil) of the Saint Lawrence.

    2. I’ve been visiting Montreal off and on since 1965 and have never met an employee of CTCUM/STM who would not speak English if asked. Admittedly anecdotal… but most Montrealers are proud of the Metro and happy to relieve US visitors of as much cash as possible.

    3. I did have trouble with an MTC agent who couldn’t speak English. I think he was an immigrant and french was his second language.

  6. STB frequently rates other city’s transportation systems. That means transit bloggers in other cities and countries must have rated ours. I would like to see what they had to say about us. However, I’m too lazy to look for it myself, so would someone please go find it for me? Thanks.

      1. wow, the virtualtourist page was wildly inaccurate about several transportation features in our towns. From Orca cards and turnstiles to Everett Transit’s scope of operations.

  7. The bad news for Toronto was the election of a pro-car mayor who has a phobia against streetcars and any rapid transit that is visible to his eyes. He gets upset if his single-occupant car is blocked by the 100+ people in a streetcar in front of him.

    1. How the hell did this guy get elected with his anti-rapid transit stance in a major city???

      1. The previous mayor (“Comrade David”) was ANTI-CAR and to be fair, the current mayor isn’t really anti-rapid transit. “Comrade David” in his two tenures as mayor did little for rapid transit. He should have got rapid transit started (in the ground) in the first term, instead he got us Hybrid buses. The St.Clair streetcar ROW could have been rapid transit with limited stops. Instead of this he left the stops intact and only shaved a couple of minutes off a trip. The streetcars rarely go faster than 40KMH (25mph) and stops every few hundred yards. The Current mayor promised more subways and wants a new line on Sheppard instead of a new Streetcar on a ROW. Cost is going to be about 10X more. I would like to see a compromise, a streetcar on a ROW, but with the number of stops a subway would have.

      2. Mayor Ford is, unfortunately, aggressively anti-streetcar. Given how important streetcars are to Toronto’s mass transit that makes him anti-transit.

  8. A major feature of metropolitan Toronto transit has been the implacable opposition to rapid transit of the mayor(for the past 33 years)of immediately adjacent Mississauga Ontario. Metro Toronto’s population of 5.6m includes 2.5m within the city limits plus another 1m in Mississauga. Toronto’s Pearson airport, one of North America’s major ones sits inside Mississauga, and accordingly it still lacks rapid transit.
    There is a local town centre that looks somewhat like a place that would have something heavier than bussing. There are probably 25-30 buildings at 30 flrs, with some reaching to 50+ (http://www.mississauga.com/news/news/article/879320 ).
    With a change of people at town hall, there will probably be some improvement in connections with Pearson and the City Centre.

    1. Those are the 2 tallest building in the city of Mississauga with the rest being under 39 floors.

      Council has a fear on height and doesn’t believe in density along transit corridors.

      Maybe by 2020, the city will have its first LRT line.

      The city is building an BRT along the highway 403 with ridership expected at 7,000/hr at peaktime come 2031.

      Someone needs to stand up to Mayor Ford and tell him it is either Transit City or nothing at all. The Sheppard Subway Ford wants is only going to see 3,500 riders at peak time and that a waste of million of dollars that could be better used to build an BRT or an LRT as plan.

      1. From the look of it, Mississauga looks like a worse version of DT Bellevue, tall buildings surrounded by super-wide streets and large parking lots.

  9. The TTC is the worst abomination of a transit agency I have ever had the displeasure of doing business with. Every single TTC employee I have ever talked to is rude. The whole system is run with rider convenience entirely as an afterthought.

  10. I was commenting on a article about street separated bike lanes when I remembered what it is I loved about the NYC subway system (and all subways).

    A subway is like a magic transporter device. You go in through one “wormhole” and you emerge from another…while your on the train, its dark and you have no idea what the exact route is…you merely measure it in the time it takes to get there, or the number of stations you must pass through. The subway has its own…topology…layered on top of the real world and merely interfaces at the stops.

    To me, a subway is real transit.

  11. My take on the TTC:

    Pro: The system is remarkably easy to navigate. The majority of buses originate at a Subway station, go straight down a single street, turn around, and come back. It’s so straightforward that you can largely navigate without learning the route numbers: Want to get somewhere on Finch St? Just get to Finch subway station and hop on the Finch bus. It helps that Toronto’s streets are laid out mostly in a grid with regularly spaced arterials.

    Con: TTC’s transfers have archaic “valid for single continuous trip / no stopovers / no round-trips” restrictions. There’s also no fare integration with surrounding transit agencies: a single trip on TTC / GO Transit / Mississauga Transit could run upwards of $10.

    1. The first part is totally right, and it’s actually a super powerful thing. Think about it, everyone can know how to use the bus system without even knowing route numbers!

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