Density at Transit Stations – What a Novel Concept

By Mike Millar

My recent visit to Hong Kong, together with planning rule changes announced by the Ontario Government back home, brought to light the stark differences between our two cities when it comes to attitudes towards city building and real estate development. It is partly these differences that has led Hong Kong to being a top-tier world class city with Toronto trailing far behind.

First, let me clarify what I mean by “world class city.” I am referring to a holistic meaning that encompasses all the progressive qualities that make a city a leader on global socio-economic affairs. Cities that have the best ability to attract people, capital and companies from around the world, as they are attractive places to live, work and do business. They are places that perform better than most when measured against their economy, R&D, culture, livability, the environment, and last but certainly not least, accessibility.

There are simply too many rankings and research papers to point to a definitive list, but fortunately there are similarities shared among all. And when comparing Hong Kong to Toronto, it is Hong Kong that is consistently ranked within the top 10 of world class cities. Not Toronto.

Let me focus on just one aspect of what makes Hong Kong a much more progressive city than Toronto both in mindset as well as how the city itself functions: accessibility. While risking stating the obvious, Hong Kong is a much more accessible city than Toronto. Hong Kong has five times the population density yet daily average commuting times are 23 minutes shorter than in Toronto (73 minutes vs. 96 minutes).[i] Hong Kong’s MTR transports 2 billion passengers a year across its network at no cost to tax payers; it has a Cost Recovery Ratio of 185% that equates to a $2.7 billion profit in Canadian Dollars.[ii] By comparison, Toronto’s Metrolinx transports 72 million passengers a year at a Cost Recovery Ratio of 68% that equates to a government operating and capital subsidy per year of $341 million and $3.5 billion, respectively.[iii] The Toronto Transit Commission transports 592 million passengers a year at a Cost Recovery Ratio of 73% that equates to a government operating and capital subsidy per year of $752 million and $1.9 billion, respectively.[iv]

Anyone that has ventured outside Canada to experience what other cities have to offer in the way of public transit will attest to the superior level of service provided by Hong Kong’s MTR. If looking for a more objective measure, a 2018 report published by consultancy firm McKinsey & Company ranked MTR highest among all other cities in the world when measured against the following five factors: rail infrastructure, affordability, efficiency, convenience and safety.

The sentiment among the masses in Toronto is that we want the convenience of mass public transit, but do not want to pay too much for it and do not want it to attract too much density. Absurd. But the absurdity is often hidden under the guise of “good planning” with comments like, “we need to respect the character of our neighbourhoods,” or “we are not anti-development, we just want to see controlled, reasonable and sustainable development”. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is self-serving NIMBY rage, plain and simple. Not good planning.

Population growth will continue regardless of local community wishes or land use planning policy. The issue is whether government will direct that growth to areas that are best suited to accommodate higher density development, or those areas that are less suitable from a social, economical and environmental standpoint. Will we direct development to transit station locations or less urban locations like suburban and rural greenfield sites?

Quick fact check. Transit Oriented Development (as compared to Transit Adjacent Development, suburban or rural development) is better for everyone. Residents own fewer cars, drive less, and rely more on other forms of transportation such as walking, cycling and public transit.[v]

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark’s recent announcement that his government will change planning rules to allow taller buildings around transit hubs is simply common sense. His comment, that it is misguided for the City of Toronto to limit growth at corners such as Bayview and Eglinton to eight storeys, is bang on correct. His decision to increase heights to 20 or 35 storeys is by all objective measures appropriate, if not a bit too timid.

But as progressive cities like Hong Kong, and industry-leading transit organizations like MTR, gallop forward, we here in Toronto continue at a snail’s pace towards city building; trying to understand what type of development works best, when other cities around the world figured it out decades ago. They will continue to be viewed as world leaders, us as world followers. Need we waste more time debating solutions that other jurisdictions have long solved? Maybe in 30 years Metrolinx and the City of Toronto will adopt MTR’s successful strategy of real estate development as they have so definitively advertised on their website: “The Company’s strategy is to help establish new communities along the routes of its railway through the development of substantial properties at the sites of its stations. This has led to more effective integration between its railway and property developments, increased catchment and passenger flows for the railway, and enhanced investment returns.”

Wake up Toronto. Blame the Province as an excuse to do the right thing. Support meaningful city building and put density where it belongs—at transit stations.

[i] Liora Ipsum, “Here’s how using the TTC compares to commuting in other major cities around the world” (January 10, 2017), online: DailyHive TO <>

[ii] Mass Transit Railway (MTR), “Investor’s Information: Financial Highlights” (2018), online: <>

[iii] Metrolinx, Annual Report: 2017-2018, V1.0, June 2018.

[iv] Toronto Transit Commission, 2017 Annual Report, 2017

[v] Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Transit Oriented Development: Using Public Transit to Create More Accessible and Livable Neighborhoods. TDM Encyclopedia, Updated 21 March 2019.

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