Benefits to Subway Construction

Economic Benefits
Environmental Benefits
Health & Safety Benefits
Encouraged Reading


Subway construction benefits the city in more ways than just ease of mobility. A subway line can save a region billions of dollars, significantly reduce pollution, increase the health of residents, and result in a more sustainable region for the future.


Economic Benefits

Despite the initial cost of constructing a subway, the economic benefits to the region will more than make up for it within a few years. Building a subway is not simply a cost that must be absorbed to result in better transportation; it is an investment in the region which will pay back dividends for years to come.

Construction of a subway will result in new job creation. During an analysis of spending using funds from the American stimulus package, SmartGrowth America found that transit construction is one of the most efficient ways to spend stimulus money in terms of job creation170. The number of jobs created as a result of all stimulus funding was compared with the amount of funding spent on construction of the project, and transit creates almost double the amount of jobs per dollar spent compared to road construction. 16,419 job-months are created for every billion dollars invested in transit. At the current rate of $4,463 per month for construction workers in Canada129 roughly $73.3 million worth of jobs are created for every billion spent, or roughly 7.3% of the total cost of the line.

Though job creation is only temporary, the economic benefits once the line has been constructed are much more significant. The time savings that a subway can generate can result in significant savings in terms of money for a region. A 2000 Federal Transit Administration paper studied six recently constructed transit lines, noting an average of slightly more than 60,000 hours were saved per day as a result of new transit construction156. Based on average wages in the Greater Toronto Area77, this results in a savings to the region of $345 million annually. It is easy to see the benefits of saving travel time when this means that every second shaved off the average daily commute of Torontonians saves $4.8 million per year.

The report went on to analyze productivity gains seen as a result of construction, finding that the increase in productivity and economic growth seen in an average metropolitan area with a population of 1.7 million that sees an increase in transit presence of 10% is $230 million per year. Because the GTA has a much larger population than that, our annual increase in productivity and economic growth would be $758 million.

These benefits alone make subway construction very attractive for a region, resulting in regional savings of over $1 billion annually, yet even more benefits exist that are harder to measure on the whole for a region. 

Kennedy (2002) did a study on the sustainability of public and private transportation systems in the GTA94. In his work, he sums up the overall economic cost to the region of transporting a passenger by car and by public transit. In this comparison, he factors in the costs of purchase, maintenance and operation, among other costs, and determines what percentage of these costs leave the GTA versus what percentage remains within it. When totalling the numbers, he arrived at the conclusion that transporting a resident by car costs the region three to six times more than transporting that same resident by transit.

Using transit saves the region money.

Property values for buildings near the construction of a subway line will increase, resulting in a greater equity for property owners. Litman (2010) created a table of rail transit expansion and how it affected property values, and with few exceptions showed that most construction will increase property value between 5-20%101. Similar property value increases relative to rapid transit location were noted in a 2001 Parsons Brinckerhoff study50. Though dated, Bajic’s work (1983) found that new subway lines within the City of Toronto will increase property values by approximately 4%, researching the effect on that construction of the Spadina subway had on neighbouring properties10. Though this number seems small, given the number of properties within a short distance of a proposed subway line, this effect can easily generate over $100 million in additional property value.

It is clear that although subways may be expensive to initially construct, the savings brought on by their construction and continued operation more than make up for the initial high cost.

Environmental Benefits

Unlike economic benefits which can be difficult to fully comprehend, the environmental benefits of subway construction are obvious to all. Not only are subways vastly more environmentally friendly than private automobiles, but they also provide a distinct improvement over the diesel buses that they replace.

In terms of comparing transit to private vehicles, a 2002 report by Shapiro, Hassett, and Arnold researched the levels of greenhouse gases produced by vehicles and compared to transit, establishing exactly how significant the environmental benefits of transit as a whole are to the United States133. They came to the following conclusion:

[...]travel by public transportation produces, on average, 95 percent less carbon monoxide, 90 percent less volatile organic compounds, and about 45 percent less carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, per passenger mile, as travel by private vehicles.

Weyrich and Lind (2003) come to a conclusion based on energy usage rather than in terms of pollutants, and break it down by mode of travel168. Heavy Rail transportation uses roughly seven times less energy to transport a passenger a set distance compared to a private automobile. Interestingly, they also note that public transit as a whole consumes 43% the amount of energy a private car would. Though they do not specifically mention diesel buses, the difference between 43% for transit as a whole and 14% for heavy rail makes it clear that there is a substantial difference in the level of energy used by diesel buses versus heavy rail transit. To compare buses, we can look at the work of Litman101 (2010), who shows that a bus that holds 10.5 people produces between 75-80% of the greenhouse gases that a single sedan produces. This estimate may not be doing justice to the environmental benefits of a bus, however. 10 people in a bus is a rather low occupancy, and the figure used for sedan occupancy, 1.58, is much higher than Toronto’s figure of 1.2. This is also comparing only sedans, while pickup trucks and SUV’s are looked at separately.

Subways use 11% of the energy that private vehicles do per passenger km.

Thankfully Kennedy (2002) has also studied pollution specifically for Toronto in terms of transportation94. In terms of energy use, he finds that TTC diesel buses are three times more energy efficient than a common vehicle, and subway is four times more efficient than the diesel buses, making subway in Toronto twelve times more energy efficient per passenger kilometre than private automobiles. While this number is significantly higher than the number stated in Weirich and Lind, it is likely more accurate, as it uses figures from the City of Toronto, where our transit usage is fairly high for North America, which makes it more efficient than the transit comparison in the United States. Kennedy uses a figure of 1 passenger per car, which may overestimate the benefits of transit. Adjusting that to 1.2, diesel buses use 42% of the energy of private vehicles, and subways use 11%. Kennedy also uses local electricity generation facts, finding that in terms of CO2 emissions, a diesel bus produces only 11% of the emissions a private vehicle does after adjusting to current vehicle occupancy standards, and a subway produces between 7.5-17.5% of what a diesel bus does, or at most 2% of the CO2 emissions that a private vehicle does.

As well as particulate matter, noise pollution is a legitimate concern in a major city. Subways can reduce noise pollution substantially. Girnau and Blennemann state as one of their major environmental benefits of subways that they produce no noise at surface level (when they are constructed underground)68. Litman states that diesel buses and vehicles will produce similar levels of noise pollution, thus making it clear that the construction of a subway which will replace both vehicles and buses will be of tremendous use to a neighbourhood in terms of reducing noise101.

Health & Safety Benefits

With environmental benefits come health benefits. Approximately 408 people die every year in Toronto as a result of emissions that can be attributed directly to the large use of automobiles, with 1606 more ending up in hospital as a result of these emissions94. If a new subway convinces even 1% of total automobile commuters to switch to public transit, whether to benefit from the new line itself or the freed up capacity on alternate lines, we could not only increase the health of the City, but actually save lives, approximately four per year. This would be a direct result of the pollution reduction that transit provides.

Transit also provides immense health benefits in other ways. Transit use has been shown to increase physical activity, resulting in a much healthier region101. Studies have shown that transit users walk on average 30% more steps per day than a driver. This leads to a decreased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other benefits of a more active lifestyle.

Also of note are the safety benefits that transit provides. With the decline of the car in a city’s mode share, a reduction in the number of accidents and injuries will occur. The fatality rate per billion kilometres traveled is 5.75 for cars, and a mere 1.26 for heavy rail transit101. The numbers for Toronto seem to favour transit significantly even more than that: in 2008, there were 54 deaths and 15,793 injuries as a result of auto accidents in Toronto25. Though injuries occurring on the TTC could not be found, there has not been a fatal accident involving riders since 1995. Similar to the effects from pollution, a small 1% reduction in auto use may result in over a hundred injuries that can be prevented from happening.

Encouraged Reading

To learn about further benefits that occur as a result of an increased investment in transit, it is recommended that you read the report “Evaluating Public Transit Benefits and Costs” by Todd Litman working for the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. It is a 118 page document that thoroughly outlines the reasons why investment in transit is of enormous benefit to a city, including many interesting facts that are not included in this section.

Image Sources

From top to bottom:

  • Passengers wait for Jane bus, Toronto. Personal photograph by author. 2010.
  • Hearn Generating Station, Toronto. Personal photograph by author. 2005.

© 2010 Phil Orr & Andrew Perry