The Relief Line is a subway route intended to reduce crowding and congestion in Toronto’s existing subway system. Planned for over a century, we may finally see work started in a few years. If Toronto finally puts shovels in the ground on this vital transit project, we will have a new grassroots advocacy group, armed with facts, to thank for that.
Even though a relief subway line is very old idea, one that goes back over 100 years, the only construction ever done were roughed-in streetcar subway platforms at Queen Station built in the 1950s. A Queen Street subway remained on the TTC’s books until approximately 1980, when attention was focused on building subways in Toronto’s growing suburbs. But a Downtown Relief Line (DRL) was included as part of Network 2011, a plan drafted in 1985. If implemented, Toronto would have also seen new subways below Eglinton and Sheppard Avenues. Changes in the provincial government, opposition from downtown and suburban councillors and declining TTC ridership saw only two sections of subway opened: Downsview Station in 1996, as well as a shortened Sheppard subway, completed in 2002.
With increasing TTC ridership, the continued employment growth in Downtown Toronto, and no new road capacity, we are again faced with the need for downtown transit relief. During rush hour, commuters often have to wait for two or three trains to pass before boarding. Bloor-Yonge Station is operating beyond its design capacity. While there may be some short-to-medium term opportunities for transit relief with the revised plans for SmartTrack, GO RER, and other capacity improvements, such as Automatic Train Control on Line 1, the Relief Line will need to be built soon.
Planners and advocates of the DRL have wisely dropped “Downtown” from the name of the proposed subway. Thanks to populists like the Fords, and opinions such as University of Toronto Professor Margaret Kohn’s, “Downtown” has become a dirty word. There’s a false, and frankly dangerous, opinion that wealthy downtown residents benefit from subway projects, while the needs of suburban residents are brushed aside by an “openly contemptuous” “downtown cognoscenti.” In reality, the Relief Line will benefit suburban commuters the most, especially if it continues north of Danforth Avenue along the Don Mills Corridor, serving low-income, high-density neighourhoods such as Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park.
As Metrolinx and City Planning redraw plans for SmartTrack, the Scarborough Subway, and suburban light rail projects, planning work continues for the Relief Line. But the initial plans are for a short section between the Financial District and Danforth Avenue, to be really effective, the line should continue north.
Happily, there’s a new advocacy group that just launched, the Toronto Relief Line Alliance. This new group will advocate for the subway, explaining its benefits and countering the myths about the project. Without the business connections or budget of of Friends and Allies of SmartTrack (FAST), a Bay Street group formed to advocate John Tory’s SmartTrack plan, the founders have developed a slick website and started a social media blitz. (Within days of launching, TRLA has more than twice the followers on Twitter as FAST.) All the data that the TRLA presents is sourced from Metrolinx and the City of Toronto. A map, embedded below, shows the estimated travel time reductions made possible by the new subway.
Map from TRLA’s website showing the travel time savings possible for various trips to downtown via the Relief Line.
As a long-time proponent of the subway line, I’m excited by TRLA’s launch. The Toronto Relief Line Alliance, made up of independent citizens, including business professionals and aspiring planners, is a genuine grassroots advocacy group. FAST, on the other hand, is a textbook example of an Astroturf organisation.
(Full disclosure: I know many of TRLA’s founders, and I was involved in some of the pre-launch discussions. But finding myself stretched too thin, I haven’t been active in TRLA.)