Insight: Toronto-Chicago Transit Score Comparison

With the release of Ontario’s 2013 budget, the province’s mandate of how and where public money will be spent for the next year was outlined. One of the most publicized and controversial topics in Ontario is how to address transit expansion in the City of Toronto. Currently, the 2013 budget does not allocate money towards transit, but it does address the highly contested debate regarding how transit expansion would be funded. Rather than designating transit a top priority and allocating existing budget funds accordingly, the debate has instead shifted towards dedicated funding mechanisms such as the use of high occupancy vehicle toll lanes in the GTA. As the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity argues in their newly released report, transportation is a key component of government infrastructure, and appropriate investments in transit expansion in Toronto must take place in order to ensure future prosperity in the City. With this in mind, this Insight will examine Toronto’s transit system in comparison with Chicago’s in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our current system. These two cities are a natural comparison; given the fact they also have similar economies, amenities, and Creative Class shares, with the City of Toronto recently surpassing Chicago in population to become the fourth largest city in North America.

To compare the transit systems in these two cities, we used our transit score, which measures the availability of a train, bus or streetcar within 500m, to determine the transit accessibility within different neighbourhoods. For a full explanation of our transit score and the metrics used, click here. For this Insight, we have updated our Toronto map, while creating one for the city of Chicago.

Exhibit 1 displays results for Toronto. As our previous maps revealed, outside the core and surrounding areas, much of the city, especially the edges are poorly serviced by transit. Exhibit 2 presents the transit score map for the City of Chicago. Chicago’s eight rail lines, visible on the map sprouting from the downtown core, are responsible for the extremely high transit scores within the downtown core. However, despite the high scores in the core, and throughout the city on the different subway lines, there are many areas of Chicago that are shaded yellow and light green; indicating low transit accessibility.

Exhibit 1: Toronto transit score

Exhibit 1: Toronto transit score

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With increased usage and reliance on transit in large cities, it is important that the transit infrastructure in these urban centres is efficient and well-connected. There are many benefits associated with good transit infrastructure, such as increased quality of life, decreased congestion and a more sustainable city. Yet often land prices will increase in neighbourhoods where there is increased transit infrastructure, pricing out those with less economic means. When looking at the transit score maps of Toronto and Chicago together, several patterns emerge. The first main difference between the two cities is the much higher transit score within Chicago’s downtown core compared to Toronto. A great deal of Chicago’s downtown core is home to the highest quality transit on our transit score, with numerous lines intersecting in the loop area. Interestingly, Toronto, while dominated by the Yonge-University line, does not have a single area downtown that has as high of a rank (the maximum transit score in Chicago is 1,733, compared to 372 in Toronto). With numerous subway lines, which all connect into Chicago’s downtown core from multiple directions, residents living outside of the centre city are able to commute downtown with fewer transfers. While most neighbourhoods in Chicago, even in the south, are able to make it downtown by taking one bus and then one subway, Toronto’s transit system in many neighbourhoods forces people to transfer multiple times. The mayor of Chicago has continued to push the idea of a connected business and residential community through transit, by mandating that city employees take public transit during work hours. Although Toronto is now the larger city, while Chicago is declining in population, Toronto’s transit system is currently not effectively connecting the entire transit system together, like in Chicago. With a better and more connected transit system, it makes it easier for residents and businesses to benefit from many of the amenities and services that the city provides.

Toronto’s transit system, as presented in this Insight, is in dire need of expansion. But if this expansion if not planned right, it could lead to some negative implications for some of the current residents within certain neighbourhoods. In determining what type of expansion to develop, it would seem from examining Chicago, investment in a well-connected system with an extensive mix of different types of transit (above and underground rail, bus and suburban rail connections) to create numerous connecting lines leading to the downtown, would best service Toronto. Of the current list of proposed transit plans, the Metrolinx 25-year Big Move plan stands out as an extensive, integrated system that would serve the city of Toronto. Connecting many neighbourhoods not only to each other, but to downtown as well, could have a huge impact on the economic prosperity for the city of Toronto.

Exhibit 2: Chicago transit score

Exhibit 2: Chicago transit score

Click to see larger image.

This type of extensive, integrated transit expansion could prevent lower income residents from being priced out of their neighbourhoods as often occurs with increases in transit accessibility. If transit expansion in Toronto only extends to certain areas, then there is the possibility of lower income renters in those areas being forced to move from their community due to transit-related increases in housing values. In some Chicago neighbourhoods, where there is a more extensive transit system, certain poorer residential neighbourhoods have not become gentrified by transit expansion. This can be seen in the West Garfield park neighbourhood and Englewood, as they are still two of the poorer neighbourhoods, despite a relative close proximity to subway stations. It seems as if the well-connected rail system in Chicago allows transit expansion in some cases to not out price poorer residents, as there are still other numerous neighbourhoods with better transit options. The City of Chicago is also currently working on extending the Red rail line further down the south-side of the city, in the hopes that this will provide better transit accessibility to southern communities, while not displacing poorer south-side residents.

This Insight demonstrates that Chicago, especially its core, is a city that is connected more extensively and efficiently than Toronto. When embarking on transit expansion, it is important to examine transit within other cities and to recognize what positive and negative outcomes can come from increasing service and accessibility. After examining Chicago and Toronto, it seems that an integrated and, well connected transit system similar to that proposed by Metrolinx as opposed to extending one line, is the most viable option for Toronto, as it would increase the connectivity of many neighbourhoods to each other and to the core, while possibly not pricing out the poorer residents that rely the most on transit.


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The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors — location, place and city-regions — in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.