Taras Grescoe wrote Straphanger, a book about public transit in many different cities, worldwide. We spoke to him about how the TTC stacks up. (Or doesn't.)
It’s difficult to read Montreal-based writer Taras Grescoe’s new book on public transit around the world, Straphanger, without feeling more than a few pangs of some serious transit envy. Written as a public-transit travelogue, it’s a fascinating look at the intense relationship between a city’s growth and its transit system.
Reading Grescoe’s book, one comes to the inescapable confirmation of an idea that has been bandied about a lot recently: that the state of transit in Toronto is, to put it politely, tragic. While other cities have moved full steam ahead on transit expansions—even cities as freeway-drunk as Los Angeles—Toronto has become mired in tired debates over technology and ideology. While other cities come up with innovative methods for funding their transit systems, we are systematically starving ours.
So how can a Torontonian read Grescoe’s account of New York’s subway system or Tokyo’s bullet trains or Paris’ suburban commuter railway without feeling a little bit like we’ve missed the party? Indeed, Grescoe’s chapter on our city is entitled “The Toronto Tragedy.” But while Straphanger is a commentary on the harm the car has done to our cities’ form and vitality, it’s also a hopeful book. A book that, through examples from around the world, shows a way forward.
Torontoist sat down with Grescoe yesterday to talk about how the way we get around affects the structure of our cities, the myth of the car, and the future of transit in Toronto.
Form Follows Function Follows Form
Whether he is writing about the far-flung suburban sprawl of Phoenix or the tightly wrapped core of Paris that gives way to outer layers formed by tramways and, eventually, the car, Grescoe makes the point that the way we move is more than just getting from point A to point B. “City form is largely, but not inevitably,” he says, “influenced by its transportation modes of choice.” In other words, the way we move around our city matters.
Subways and streetcars, in their own way, fostered the first sprawl, as people were able to move farther out from the city’s core. Many cities, like Los Angeles and Vancouver, had their initial neighbourhoods formed along the spine of these early streetcar routes. But it was when the car came along, combined with cheap and easy home mortgages, that suburban sprawl took on the more menacing form that we see today. Grescoe relays the history of each city he visits through the expansion of its transit system, and, as he shows time and again, the two are inextricably linked.
But, Grescoe says, “transit can also change the existing form of a city.” Many cities are attempting to retrofit their suburban sprawl by creating denser centres around transit nodes, creating more walkable, transit-oriented development. Some of this, like the concentration of development around SkyTrain stations in Vancouver, works well, Grescoe points out, while others, like Portland’s Orenco Station neighbourhood, are really transit-adjacent developments where people still use their cars as their primary mode of transportation.
And if we pin our hopes on the car as our form of mass transportation, we’re going to have some serious problems.
The Mythology of the Car
The car was a really useful, ingenious invention, Grescoe says, “but it’s stopped working as a viable form of transport in our cities and we’re still living with the illusion that it can be one. We’re going to hit the wall soon in a lot of cities, and the biggest, most mature cities on the continent have already hit that. Toronto being one of them.”
In his chapter on Phoenix, Grescoe makes the argument that “every time you choose to drive you are, in a tiny way, opting out of, and diminishing, the public realm.” When asked if he views transit as a way to then engage with the public realm, he agrees. “Some people will look at me askance when I say that because you have images of Toyko commuters jammed together avoiding each others eyes,” but riding transit is a “reminder of the fact that we’re all in this thing together and this thing is the city.”
“We all slam our door on the world by getting in the car, by buying the ad line that this is bringing us freedom, by listening to Bruce Springsteen, falling in love with Jack Kerouac. Pining for escape. We’re getting sucked in. It’s a marketed legend now, the legend of freedom. For me, what you actually get is being stuck in gridlock on some freeway in an irrational transportation system.”
If a lesson can be drawn from Straphanger, it’s that an irrational transportation system begets an irrational urban form. “The calculus behind exurbs and office parks and long commutes was all predicated on gas being cheap,” Grescoe says. By structuring our cities around cheap, plentiful gas and the private car, we have painted ourselves into a bit of a corner. Now many cities are attempting to figure out how to graft light-rail transit lines and subways onto a city form that grew out of an entirely different mode of transportation. One only needs to read about Grescoe’s ride on Phoenix’s new light-rail line, which glides mostly empty past suburban subdivisions and parking lots, to understand how great this challenge will be.
A Way Out of the Toronto Tragedy
Where is Toronto in all of this? Grescoe writes that the Toronto-Hamilton region loses $6 billion a year in productivity due to congestion, has seen rush-hour traffic speeds decline by 24 per cent between 1986 and 2006, and ranks ahead of New York and Los Angeles on IBM’s annual commuter pain index. Ouch.
“Toronto, yeah, it’s uh,” Grescoe laughs, “It’s a horrible story.”
In his book, Grescoe makes the argument for public agencies with regional authority as a way to plan and implement well-run transit systems. “The TTC is doing a heroic job of running transit to the suburbs—it’s considered a model by a lot of transit scholars—but it’s too much for a city agency.”
“Metrolinx really needs to step up,” Grescoe says. “The TTC is incredibly frustrated with what they’re being called upon to do. They’re a small city transit agency that is called upon to do the work that TransLink is doing in the Vancouver area, that TriMet is doing in the Portland area. Those are transit systems that work because there is regional planning. Metrolinx doesn’t have the money or the resources to oversee these things. And the TTC doesn’t. I think there needs to be, at the Metrolinx level, good regional oversight. And that’s what I found in every city I went to: the cities where transit actually worked there is a planning agency overseeing this.”
A good transit system costs money, but recent polls have suggested that Torontonians are warming up to the idea of using alternative funding methods to get the city moving again, whether that takes the form of a Los Angeles–style regional sales tax, road tolls, London-style congestion charges, or some combination. Funding has to be both reliable and consistent, Grescoe says. “You can’t hope for a little money from the federal government here so a politician can come and cut the ribbon and gain some points among his constituency.”
“If you want to keep your city moving, you have to make that investment and it can’t come in dribs and drabs. That’s the lesson you see from cities around the world. We tend to have in Canada this big mega project thing: Oh, there’s an Olympics happening or a World’s Fair happening. That’s how the Montreal Metro got built; that’s how the SkyTrain got built. We just need to bite the bullet and face reality like they have in Asia and many European cities. Transit is what makes a city work and we’re falling behind in North American right now.”
However, Grescoe also says that the TTC “has been fighting against incredible odds to provide pretty good service to a very large area.”
So, what could the TTC do better right now? “I think that the single best thing that the TTC could do would be to do what Metro has done in Los Angeles, what Montreal’s STM is doing, and spend a little money on public relations. Cast themselves as underdogs and heroes and saviours of the city. Because they are. People love to hate the TTC. Everyone has their horror stories about snoozing guys in the booth, but in a lot of ways this is a system that has kept the city running.”
One hopes that with Toronto’s recent return to Transit City, Grescoe will have a bit of rewriting to do on his Toronto chapter when the paperback edition comes out. In the meantime, it probably wouldn’t hurt to send the mayor a copy.
The word Phoenix was previously misspelled throughout the article above and has now been corrected.