The title of this post comes from the Toronto Subway Song, recorded in 1950 by Betty Carr and Charles Baldour, backed by the Ozzie Williams Band. This cheeky, kitschy tune is an ode to the five-year disruption caused by the construction of Toronto’s first subway line. It was an undertaking that saw crews haul away 7.4-kilometres of Toronto’s Yonge Street and adjacent land.
Now have you heard what’s going on in Toronto?
They’re digging deeper, deeper, deeper every day.
Though proprietors are raving while they’re tearing up the paving,
The racket is nerve-wracking, so they say.
And though the noise may be distressing, so construction is progressing,
And we can’t afford a further delay
So with the help of you and me and the blessed T.T.C.
We’ll soon have a real subway.
Enjoy the full song below, along with a montage of pictures from the construction ordeal:
The Toronto subway finally opened on March 30, 1954.
Controversy is endemic to Toronto’s subway. At every turn — historical and contemporary — angry opposition voices dissent to expansionary efforts. Like clockwork, representatives of suburban taxpayers complain that their constituents will foot the bill for services they will not utilize. Transit supporters are accused of being anti-automobile lobbyists. Local businesses fear that construction periods will sink their revenue. Indeed, to be a Torontonian is to have an opinion about rapid transit. It seems to be a rite of passage.
But here’s the thing: no one today stands at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, walks through Spadina Station, or even passes the Don Mills station and thinks to themselves: there shouldn’t be rapid transit here.
Why? Toronto demonstrates a universal urban phenomenon you can see just about anywhere in the world: transit infrastructure is not only a response to economic development and the commercial necessity of human mobility but it also drives the direction of development. This is Human Geography 101: human movement along predictable and established corridors is an essential ingredient for all economic activity — whether those corridors are the convening waterways of tribal communities, the merchant trade routes of old, or the built environments of rapid transit systems. We humans orient our recreational and economic activity around patterns, and cities are manifestations of a reciprocal and ancient pattern: we build infrastructure where we need to go, and we go where our infrastructure is efficient. As anthropologists like to say: we create our paths by walking on them, but as we traverse them, our paths, in turn, create and shape our experience of the world.
Hence it is impossible to separate Toronto’s 1946 decision to rip up Yonge Street for a subway from the city that Toronto is today. Trying to imagine a version of Toronto without a subway blows brain circuitry because the only Toronto we know has grown on the foundation of its past transit decisions. Indeed, we make the path, and the path makes us.
Today, if you live in the greater Toronto area, you too are integrated in an economy that can only exist at its present scale because of its previous transit investments. Like all major urban cities, Toronto could not function without its rapid transit infrastructure. When you are a city, daily transporting thousands of people is not merely a ‘service’ that you ‘should’ provide to your citizens. On the contrary, you simply cannot exist as a modern city today without first inheriting a framework for human mobility that enabled the geographic concentration of people to occur in the first place.
Back to the cheesy subway song. As the ditty points out, there are far more characters in the story than just the “raving proprietors” who are upset with the inconvenience, dust, and noise. It’s a full cast here: people need to move, people need to get to work, and “We have men in Deseronto, girls who live in North Toronto” are cut off from efficient mobility in their city. Transit is about everyone. To participate in a community people need to be able to move around in it. A city built more or less exclusively around one mode of transportation — say, automobiles — will be a city where participation is inherently limited for certain populations.
I don’t live in Toronto. I live in London, a much smaller city. But my city is presently embroiled is a transit controversy of our own: plans to route a dedicated rapid transit bus corridor through our downtown core are invoking the ire and opposition of our own generation of “raving proprietors.”
Despite the clamour of some businesses, the majority of London’s present city councillors campaigned their way into office by explicitly promising support for a plan that states “Shaping our City around rapid transit” as its first priority. And it is a plan developed with the input of 15,000 Londoners in consultation. All this is to say: the integrity of many elected individuals is on the line here, and I am quite confident that such a relatively small upsurge in opposition is not going to derail the vision.
I’m under no illusion that my city is somehow identical Toronto. No, these are two radically different places indeed. But as Toronto’s story of the initial Yonge line demonstrates, large-scale transit infrastructure projects are not linear social affairs: They meet opposition. They spark anger and frustration. They ruffle feathers and tip over apple carts. They disrupt the status quo.
Ultimately, all cities are the sum of their decisions — especially decisions that veer from the trajectory of status quo. Complacency is a bus that goes nowhere. And while cities are different in many ways, they share a common history that illustrates the difficulty of change. But they also teach us that change is worth it. London will become an increasingly vibrant and engaging place to live — in part because we will invest in fixed corridors that, in turn, become areas of interest for further investment themselves. Why? People invest where other people are.
To my proprietor friends: as business owners who achieve success by recognizing patterns and responding to them, compare how your proximity to our new transit corridors can only be a benefit to your bottom line. Do you know of another city where proprietors are trying to move their business away from high traffic public transit hubs? Why are you afraid of getting “thrown under the bus” when the bus is bringing more clients and customers to you? How does it serve your commercial objectives to reroute an accessible intracity transit network to the doorsteps of your competitors?
Yes, sure, in the short-term this will be a big messy hassle for everyone, but we’re ready to support our local businesses through the inconvenience.