City council will debate transit options for Sheppard Avenue later this month. One thing that's already clear though: the residents of Scarborough are far from consensus on the issue.
Although it didn’t last, the initial vibe at this past Sunday’s Respect Scarborough town hall meeting on transit at Malvern Public Library was collegial, with hardly a whiff of the apparent controversy surrounding transit upgrades in the city’s east end. When moderator and U of T student Guled Arale assured the more than 100 attendees they had come to a “politically neutral event,” no one seemed to flinch.
Speakers on hand included U of T professor Eric Miller and transit advocate Jamie Kirkpatrick—both members of the advisory panel on transit options for Sheppard Avenue East. (They will presenting a recommendation to city council for debate on March 21.) As the panelists began blazing through a flurry of PowerPoint slides showing statistics, charts, and density maps that made a consistent case for light rail transit, many eyes glazed over, but some voices of discord piped up. When the meeting transitioned to smaller group discussions, attendees engaged the speakers and one another in more animated and contentious exchanges.
The bubbling antagonism in the room was finally laid bare when several people insisted on interrupting and contradicting the panelists as they fielded questions; the most vocal dissenters heckled from the back of the room. One man, clearly unimpressed with the proposed LRT on Sheppard Avenue East, shouted out, “We’ve waited 30 years; we can wait 30 years more!” Across the room, another voice fired back, “I can’t wait 30 years; I’m going to be dead by then!”
The latter comment was met with the kind of wild applause one would expect in a room heavily weighted with LRT supporters, many of whom have been organizing and advocating for months. But as we spoke with residents after the meeting, it was clear that the outburst, like the presentations and arguments that preceded it, failed to address their persistent fears and doubts about the LRT proposal.
The fellow who made the “30 years more” argument (he declined to give his name) told us that he is not a member of Respect Scarborough, but had come to the event after reading about it in a local paper. He complained that the panelists were “all slanted towards LRT—there’s no opinions offered on subways.” When asked about his concerns regarding the LRT plan, he offered that trains running down the middle of Sheppard Avenue “will cause a road hazard with people walking back and forth to board.”
Sharon and Don York, who live in Scarborough, told us they took the time to ride the 512 St. Clair streetcar from end to end, making the same trip days later in their car, hoping to gain insight into an LRT on Sheppard. They said that from what they saw, the right-of-way caused gridlock and hampered ambulances on the roadway.
Don expressed doubts that Sheppard could support an LRT and four lanes of traffic: “I wouldn’t go as far as saying that [TTC staff] are lying about the plan, but I don’t believe there’s room in all areas of Sheppard to expand the lanes.” At the same time, he described the current drive along Sheppard East as “packed, just really busy. There’s so many people coming from the east end.”
Joan Schmidt came to the meeting with a popular concern: the ability of vehicles to make left turns once the Sheppard LRT right-of-way is in place. While she appeared satisfied with explanations from both Miller and urban geography professor Andre Sorensen, who said that LRTs offer a “trade-off” to move transit along, Schmidt remarked to us that she was annoyed at having to “convince [the panelists] to talk about it in the first place.”
Scarborough Councillors Raymond Cho and Ron Moeser both made an appearance, but were gone almost as quickly as they arrived. This was in sharp contrast with Councillor Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East), who represents residents at the west end of the proposed Sheppard LRT. In a room of transit enthusiasts, Carroll appeared almost singularly equipped to address the most forceful resident outrage, outlasting the meeting, answering questions patiently, and respecting the validity of different people’s experiences.
Jessica Roher of the Scarborough Civic Action Network, a partner in organizing the event, was pleased with the turnout but lamented the antagonistic moments. “It’s not as simple as ‘subways are better than LRTs’ or vice versa,” she told us over the phone after the event. “There’s a whole series of complexities that we have to take into consideration.”
She suggests that while most Scarborough residents agree on the pressing need for transit improvements, “people need factual information on what it would mean to build a Sheppard LRT instead of a Sheppard subway.” Roher conceded that the event fell short in its attempts to “take emotions out of the debate,” noting that many participants “weren’t able to divorce their feeling that ‘subways are better’ from what might be better for Scarborough right now.”
Roher is hopeful that future events can capitalize on the shared values of most Scarborough residents: “The caring is coming from a place where everyone wants better transit. If people have better ways of facilitating large community discussions, which allow for the frustration to come out without the anger and divisive talk, that would be great.”