Tales from the Underground

Looking at Three Subterranean Cities

Toronto, Chicago, and New York City are three of the largest cities in North America. All are famous for their bustle, energy, work opportunities, and tourist attractions. What is less well-known is that all three of these urban centres feature vast areas beneath the street surface where pedestrians can shop, dine, catch a subway, do their banking, or simply avoid inclement weather.
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Of this trio of metropolises, Toronto boasts it holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest ‘underground shopping complex.’ Toronto’s PATH system, in the downtown core, consists of 3.7 million square feet of retail space with 1,200 restaurants, shops, and services, according to the City of Toronto website. “An estimated 4,600 jobs are located in the PATH. The Path generates approximately $271 million in federal, provincial, and municipal tax revenue annually,” and is roughly thirty kilometres in size, adds the site.

PATH is more than just an intriguing retail destination, however. Some seventy-five buildings, multiple parking garages, six subway stations, and nearly ten hotels are all accessible via PATH. The system also offers underground connections to some of Toronto’s best-known entertainment, sport, retail, and tourist venues, including the CF Toronto Eaton Centre, Roy Thomson Hall, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the CN Tower, and the Scotiabank Arena, formerly known as the Air Canada Centre.

The PATH system can trace its roots back to 1900. At the time, the T. Eaton Company decided to create a tunnel linking its flagship store at 178 Yonge Street to a bargain annex. Within two decades, five tunnels were operating underneath downtown Toronto streets, and the system continued to expand.

After Union Station, the main transit hub, was opened in 1927, a tunnel was built connecting it with the Fairmont Royal York, called the Royal York Hotel at the time. This was done to make it more convenient for hotel guests who were coming into Toronto on the train.

For all this digging activity, the actual PATH system did not really come into its own until the 1970s, when new tunnels were constructed linking a pair of shopping centres. In 1987, Toronto City Council decided to become the PATH coordinating agency and fund a sign system to bring order to the increasingly complex underground network.

Even today, the PATH keeps expanding and changing. In 2010, the City of Toronto hired the firm Urban Strategies to come up with a PATH master plan, with an eye towards future growth. Intensive research and consultations ensued, and there is currently buzz about extending the system, in part to relieve congestion near Union Station.

For all the planning that has gone into PATH, however, actually walking in the system can be deeply confusing. Even residents who have lived in Toronto for decades complain about getting lost or baffled by bewildering directions.

Besides the sheer size and intricacy of the PATH system, confusion stems largely from two factors. For a start, the PATH tunnels do not follow the city grid pattern on the surface. Secondly, no single agency or organization controls the entire PATH network. While the City of Toronto handles signs and other issues, it does not actually own PATH.

“Each segment of the walkway system is owned and controlled by the owner of the property through which it runs. There are about 35 corporations involved,” notes the city website. This mixed ownership model can make system coordination rather difficult.

For all that, PATH remains hugely popular. According to TripSavvy.com, on business days, more than 200,000 commuters use PATH to travel to and from the half-dozen subway stations connected to it. Toronto can feature awful weather with high winds that are made worse in the downtown by the presence of so many skyscrapers creating a sidewalk level ‘wind tunnel’ effect on blustery days. When the weather turns grim, travelling in the PATH system can be safer and much more pleasant than walking on the surface.

Given the vast number of pedestrians using PATH, it is not a surprise the system is packed with retailers. The system is built beneath the financial district, so high-end shops selling everything from perfume to clothing abound, not to mention countless coffee outlets and links to the Royal Bank Plaza and Scotia Plaza. PATH also contains plenty of reasonably priced restaurants, pharmacies, and convenience stores.

Toronto is often compared to Chicago. Both cities are based next to Great Lakes: Lake Ontario for Toronto; Lake Michigan for Chicago. Both have similar populations of roughly 2.7 million people apiece and reputations as dynamic economic powerhouses. So it is fitting that Chicago also has a major underground pedestrian space in its core.

The Chicago Pedestrian Walkway System, commonly called ‘the Pedway,’ connects roughly fifty buildings along forty city blocks of the Loop – the name given to the central business district. “Nearly every civically significant building in the Loop is connected by a section of the Pedway,” notes the website ChicagoCurbed.com.

The idea of an underground pedestrian system was first discussed in Chicago a century ago. What really drove the concept, however, was the growing popularity of suburban indoor malls. City boosters figured it might be a smart idea to offer a convenient, weatherproof underground walkway in the downtown core to keep pedestrians in the area.

In 1951, the Pedway was born when a tunnel was completed connecting the Milwaukee-Dearborn subway tunnel with the State Street subway. More work was done throughout the decades until a vast underground network emerged. At present, the Pedway covers roughly five miles and joins commuter rail and Chicago Transit Authority stations to public and private buildings including the city hall. The Pedway also has what ChicagoCurbed.com refers to as “a supercolony of businesses, including dry cleaners, salons, shoe repair shops, and restaurants and bars.”

Like Toronto’s PATH system, the Pedway is not without its problems, and getting around can be rather tricky due to its mixture of private and public ownership that results in confusing or signs. “While an official map is available via the City of Chicago’s website, the map doesn’t articulate the dozens of informal paths connecting various points of the Pedway. Some of these informal paths are through private property or in many cases across commuter or rapid transit train platforms,” states ChicagoCurbed.com.

Despite this, the Pedway does offer a helpful means to access city transit, and thousands of commuters use the system each business day to board trains and escape terrible weather as Chicago has notoriously cold winters and hot summers.

New York City has more people than Toronto and Chicago combined and features several underground pedestrian walkways and retail areas. Prominent among these is the Concourse at the world-famous Rockefeller Center. While everybody knows about the Rockefeller Center’s surface attractions including the famous skating rink, Christmas tree raising ceremony, and tourist destinations such as Radio City Music Hall and NBC Studios, the Concourse is a lesser-known feature.

The Concourse has been open since the mid-1930s. It runs beneath Fifth and Sixth Avenues and offers “a complete underground network of retailers and stores,” according to the Rockefeller Center website. The concourse also features several coffee shops and a branch of the U.S. Post Office, among other services.

The Concourse serves much the same function as Toronto’s PATH and Chicago’s Pedway in that it offers pedestrians comfort and, in theory at least, convenience. While this aspect of large underground pedestrian walkways is somewhat debatable thanks to their complexity, such systems provide an alternative means of getting about on foot, shelter from bad weather, and unique opportunities to shop, dine, work, or simply explore.

Tales from the Underground

Toronto, Chicago, and New York City are three of the largest cities in North America. All are famous for their bustle, energy, work opportunities, and tourist attractions. What is less well-known is that all three of these urban centres feature vast areas beneath the street surface where pedestrians can shop, dine, catch a subway, do their banking, or simply avoid inclement weather.

May 25, 2019, 8:36 AM EDT