How Bessarion, one of Toronto's least-used subway stations, offers lessons for avoiding 'bad planning'
Recent growth might not boost ridership, thanks to decades-old planning decisions, transit advocates say
Few in the city have heard of Bessarion subway station, and even fewer people can pronounce it.
Now, as the neighbourhood around Toronto's second-least-used subway stop is readying for major expansion, transit advocates worry decades-old decisions could still curb ridership growth — an instance of "bad planning" that some say offers lessons for future transit and community development.
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Condominium development in the Bayview Village neighbourhood has skyrocketed, with the bulk of new units being built by Concord Adex. It's set to become the largest planned community in Toronto since the CityPlace development began in the early 2000s.
The project aims to put up 17 new buildings, two schools, and one of the largest community centres in North York, which is slated to open in 2021.
It could also mean an influx of at least 9,000 more residents, but some say that might not translate into increased subway ridership, thanks to a deep-rooted car culture and previous planning decisions.
"Bessarion was built in a car-oriented location and it takes decades to build the kind of density to actually support the ridership of that subway," said Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute.
Opened in 2002, the TTC stop along the Sheppard subway line — also known as Line 4 — still has fewer than 3,000 daily riders. And it's no surprise: a stroll through the neighbourhood reveals strip malls, constant car traffic, and ample parking.
For perspective, Burda said, the entire Sheppard line carries about 50,000 riders a day, compared to the King streetcar, which travels though bustling and walkable downtown neighbourhoods and carries more than 80,000 riders.
"A subway is built to carry a tremendous capacity," she added. "But it's way under capacity."
More people could mean more drivers, not transit riders
The team at Concord Adex doesn't believe their massive new development project could change the course any time soon.
David Shepherd has worked for the developer as a condominium inspector for the past five years and, every weekday morning, ends his subway commute at Bessarion.
"There may be more people as a result of this development, but a lot of people drive up here," he said.
"It is not as transit-friendly because everything is accessible in a car. It is the mentality of the people who live in North York: Most people just drive everywhere."
If there weren't as many surface parking lots, he added, "people probably wouldn't drive as much."
The company's developments are on the lands immediately next to Bessarion station, yet their first buildings are the ones farthest away from Sheppard Avenue, next to Highway 401.
That's a concern for Coun. Shelley Carroll, whose ward contains the subway stop.
With "no real walkable route" to the station already, she said the first buildings of any development should be right over top.
"Until we build condos close to the station, I can only say that the ridership numbers for Bessarion [will be] laughable," Carroll added.
City needs to 'learn lessons' from Bessarion
Now, Carroll said, the city needs to "learn lessons" from what's happening at Bessarion station, where a subway stop was built in an area that's not pedestrian-friendly, curbing its ridership growth for decades.
"We are about to do the same thing along the Eglinton Crosstown," she warned.
"We have to build as much density and walkability around the station node first — that is what our official plan always said that we should be doing. If we are not doing it, we are ignoring our own plan, let alone the plan that is imposed on us by the province."
Expanding transit, and building around current and future stations, is a big focus for Premier Doug Ford's government.
Through a new housing supply action plan, moving through the Legislature as Bill 108, the province aims to foster development next to and above major transit stations.
At the same time, the Ford government is also pushing a sweeping new transit plan for the Toronto area, which includes a three-stop Scarborough subway and extension of the Yonge Line to Richmond Hill.
The province also says it "remains committed" to extending the Sheppard subway line to McCowan station, to connect with the future Scarborough extension.
Coun. Josh Matlow, a critic of the province's plans, is wary of those expansion efforts, noting the Sheppard line remains subsidized by the property tax base while a three-stop Scarborough subway would feature stations in low-density areas.
"Transit should be built based on evidence rather than political interests, and should focus on where there's existing density or where there's projected demand," he said, calling the Sheppard subway a "political plan" that was never a good investment.
"We need to build communities where people will live, work, and play," Matlow added.
Carroll questioned whether Toronto is really building the transit-centric developments it needs, and stressed those planning decisions need to come right at the beginning of new developments, not years later.
Without that foresight, the city will routinely have "less walkable, non-transit oriented development," Burda echoed — even if future subways are getting built.
- A previous version of this story stated the area's community centre is set to open in late 2019. In fact, it is slated to open in 2021.May 24, 2019 3:43 PM ET
With files from Lauren Pelley