In 2012, I completed my dissertation, “Searching for a Better Way: Subway Life and Metropolitan Growth in Toronto, 1942-1978.” The dissertation examines the growth of the Toronto subway system and the ways that it transformed the expanding metropolitan area from the 1940s to the 1970s, and into the present. Please feel free to download an electronic copy of it. I’m currently revising the dissertation for publication.
The dissertation traces how various groups perceived the subway through a number of interconnected themes: the thinking behind technological choices about the subway and the wider transportation system during a period of growing automobile use; the dynamics between local communities and the demands of growth in the metropolitan area; the different sources of financing the subway’s capital and operational costs; the ways that the subway altered the built and natural environment; and how users understood the subway’s accessibility, safety and aesthetics.
Although planners, engineers, entrepreneurs and local politicians had suggested subways for Toronto as early as 1909, it was not until the wartime context of the early 1940s that the city-owned transit authority, the TTC, began to consider rapid transit. In January 1946, ratepayers overwhelmingly voted in favour of building a rapid transit system, and in March 1954, Canada’s first subway opened under Yonge Street. By the late 1950s, Metro Toronto had begun to expand the system, which would reach its suburbs by 1968.
Since the 1940s, the TTC and other civic officials promoted the subway as a public technology: an infrastructure that belonged to all Torontonians and promised to benefit all residents. Toronto built its subway system with the intention of fighting traffic congestion and creating a more efficient transportation network across the growing area. Increasing the speed, capacity, and comfort of transit along major corridors, argued the TTC and numerous politicians, maintained ridership, stabilized the downtown, spurred development, raised assessment values, shortened commuting times, and improved the everyday lives of residents.
By the late 1960s, perceptions of Toronto’s subway began to change. Emphasizing the subway as a public technology had sought to justify the sacrifices demanded from certain members of the civic community, like those who faced expropriation or others who felt train rumblings in their homes. Increasingly, middle-class residents began to protest against the consequences of subway building on their neighbourhoods. These citizens wanted subways, but were critical of the ways in which Metro and the TTC selected alignments and construction methods. This sentiment took place within a wider moment of citizen activism against urban renewal and other transportation projects such as the infamous Spadina Expressway, which Premier Bill Davis cancelled in 1971 as he promised a new era of public transit in Toronto.
Increased government funding towards subway capital and operating costs during the early 1970s was in part a political response to the end of Toronto’s “balanced transportation system” of subways and expressways, which Davis effectively killed with his Spadina Expressway cancellation. Yet the policy shift also reflected a greater faith in transit because of growing social concerns about the impact of the automobile on the urban fabric’s built and natural environments. These factors influenced Torontonians to expand the definition of the subway as a public technology built for the benefit all residents. For example, disability advocates urged more escalators for the elderly, parents with strollers and those with other mobility restrictions, while they pushed for elevators so that wheelchair users could ride the subway. Around the same time, a spate of violence, tinged with racism and covered widely in the local media, challenged the belief that the subway was safe for all its passengers. To many, subway crime threatened Toronto’s reputation as the “city that works,” particularly its relatively high level of racial and ethnic harmony. Some people demanded greater security measures, while others believed creative architecture and art could improve safety — along with the overall transit experience — in a system with stations that had been compared to barren washrooms.
As Canadians continue to debate the role of public transit as a positive alternative to the car, it is imperative that we investigate past dynamics of public transportation and its impact on society. Ultimately, my study of the growth and changing perceptions of the Toronto subway seeks to combine an examination of public policy with the experiences of everyday life in English Canada’s largest city.