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Public Works: Selling Transit Spending

If Los Angeles can get people on board with public transit, surely Toronto can do the same.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}MrDanMofo{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr pool{/a}.

The city that invented drive-through living wants to make transit cool. Los Angeles is having some success at rebranding its Metro system as a fun, hip way to get around, rather than the transport of last resort for the indigent and unlicensed.

Michael Lejeune, creative director of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told the New York Times that 18 months after the introduction of a breezy new ad campaign back in 2003 (“Metropolitan Transit Authority? Oh, please. Just say Go Metro”), discretionary ridership jumped by eight per cent, with no other changes to the service.

Like L.A., Toronto needs to get people out of their cars in order to solve gridlock issues. Even so, it’s not as though the TTC is suffering from a paucity of users. From October 2011 to October 2012, the TTC saw a record 510 million Rocket riders, and key routes like the Yonge subway line are already jammed beyond capacity at peak periods.

It’s not like we’re standing still. Giant boring machines are prepping to grind new CHUD corridors along the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown LRT route, and sleek new Jetson-style streetcars should be awing the tourists by 2014. But that’s a drop in the bucket, and beyond some irrational obstructionism from Mayor Rob “subways or nothing” Ford, it’s principally lack of funding that prevents Toronto from building the system it needs.

Making transit trendy isn’t our problem; the problem is finding the money to make it bigger and better. The TTC doesn’t need more people on board its vehicles. It needs people on board with the idea that transit is something worth paying for.

And that’s where a little marketing could help.

Appeals to the public have been tried before. Back in 2007, former mayor David Miller looked to coax the feds into giving cities one out of the six cents per dollar then being collected through the goods and services tax (although the money would not have been allocated specifically for transit). The effort included a full-on marketing campaign intended to rally taxpayer support around the idea and pressure the government into acquiescing.

It didn’t work. The Harper government, maybe having concluded that a simple refusal wouldn’t demonstrate sufficient contempt for the request, subsequently knocked a penny off the GST, saving the average consumer about enough for a weekly latte while denying Toronto access to an estimated $1.3 billion annually. Today the “One Cent Now!” website is 404, a figurative gore-dripping head on a pike warning away others who might be thinking of looting the federal treasury.

The experience taught us not just that advertising doesn’t always work, but also that begging mama and papa government to let us spend our own money is usually a lost cause. That means we need new revenue tools, which is a tactful way of saying shaking down folks like you and me, possibly through a regional sales tax, road tolls, or congestion charges for downtown drivers.

And here’s where clever and informative marketing comes in. While most people are understandably opposed to having more of their paycheque siphoned off into the public purse, they can also be civic-minded if convinced the funds will be used wisely. In 2008, L.A. residents voted for a half-penny sales tax to fund transportation initiatives (although a move earlier this month to extend the tax by 30 years fell just short of the necessary two-thirds approval).

Torontonians are at least as aware of the value of a robust public transport structure as Angelenos. In April of this year, a poll indicated that 74 per cent of Torontonians would support a regional sales tax to pay for new transit.

The City would still need approval from Queen’s Park for any such initiatives, but that wouldn’t be impossible if sufficient public support could be mustered.

Sexy ads and celebrity spokespeople (“Mike Bullard takes the bus!”) won’t be enough, of course. “Respect for taxpayers” has been sloganized into stupidity, but it’s actually going to be a requirement if we’re going to be asked to crack open our piggy banks during tough times.

But if council can agree upon and explain a coherent and cost-effective plan, there’s no reason the public wouldn’t get behind it.

It can be done. Decide on and cost a realistic transit plan. Lobby Queen’s Park for the new revenue powers. Sell the city on the idea through honesty, education, and explanation of just how much traffic congestion costs us. And maybe we’ll get our subways after all.


  • Anonymous

    “But if council can agree upon and explain a coherent and cost-effective plan, there’s no reason the public wouldn’t get behind it.”

    That’s adorable.

    Council has, so far, agreed on literally dozens of coherent and cost-effective plans. These plans stretch all the way back to the 1960s. And maybe 2-3 of them have actually been implemented.

    This is for various reasons–stinkers like Rob Ford promising things they can’t deliver, the fact that Greg Sorbara wouldn’t let us build anything until we started building a subway into his own riding, and (of course) Mike Harris–but the whole thing you’re advocating here is just… adorable.

    I mean, the solution is so simple!

    First, we need to get city council to agree unanimously on a plan. This is a council which can barely agree whether or not tap water should be served at committee meetings, and you make it sound like a cakewalk.

    Then, we sell the public by trusting in their good faith and willingness to consider reason. (The Chamber of Commerce has been attempting that for decades [“Do you know how much time we lose every day to commuting?”, to no success. Never mind what the Sun would do with any proposal to spend any amount of money on anything that isn’t a football player, a busty woman, or a football player with large breasts.)

    Then we just walk over to Queen’s Park and get them on board. Which took David Miller his entire term in office (and was dynamited to bits on the very first day of Rob Ford’s mayoralty), but apparently it’s trivially simple and we’re somehow just doing it wrong.

    And just like that, hey Presto! Subways! Why, if we start this scheme right now, we’ll be finished in time for dinner!


    • Peter Kucirek

      I share your frustration; much of our paralysis on transit comes from constant reneging by various levels of government on transit plans and promises. But I think the large point is that the politicians are weather vanes; and any real change in transit HAS to come from the bottom up.

      In particular, I think that WE should be coming up with our own transit plan, building a case for it, and then cementing it in place with a referendum. That way any subsequent politician cannot simply cancel their predecessor’s plan because the plan is very clearly the will of the people.

      • Anonymous

        If you can get people to baseline care about transit planning, you’d have a point. But I don’t think we can: I think people would much rather approve or disapprove of other people’s plans than make their own.

        Which is why I think Metrolinx is the answer. Technocracy, the ability to work regionally (rather than locally), integration of transit services (so we can stop talking about “Scarborough relief lines” and other nonsense like that) and the fact that plans aren’t bound to the success or failure of individual politicians and parties bodes well for actually getting stuff built.

        • Anonymous

          “Metrolinx is the answer.”

          Apart from their utter lack of experience in running an urban transit system, and they’re an even bigger political football than the TTC but with added Queen’s Park? That’s adorable!

          • Anonymous

            Metrolinx does not grow in a vacuum. When they absorb functions from other transit agencies, they also absorb the people and systems which powered those functions. And by the time we’re talking about Metronlinx-led plans for regional development, they’ll have been operating GO for several years, making your argument moot either way you cut it.

            As to it being a political football… it isn’t. Metrolinx is an explicitly apolitical body. That’s the point. That’s why it’s structured as it is.

            And that’s also why Metrolinx is uniquely positioned to succeed. By treating transit as a regional issue, rather than as an issue of individual cities (or, as it far too often is, individual city council wards), they don’t have to appease every pissant elected official in order to get stuff done. (Indeed, Metrolinx is in the unusual position of being able to report that something ought to be built, even if the local representatives are hopping mad.)

          • Anonymous

            I wish I could be so sanguine about Metrolinx’s prospects as the savior you’ve painted them, but they have this shit record…

          • Paul Kishimoto

            They’ll either improve and do better; be eliminated and perhaps eventually replaced; or continue extending the “shit record”. You think the latter is most likely, and that’s nice, but ‘mikehatedit’ is right that the first is the route that has to be trod.

          • Anonymous

            I don’t think anything is “most likely”. Their record is what it is. That is why I don’t think Metrolinx as presently constituted will save (or for that matter improve) transit. Metrolinx will continue to excel at empire building, sinecure securing, and seeing which way the wind is blowing. The concept that a politically-appointed body is or can be “apolitical” is interesting. Metrolinx has played a pretty devious and destructive role in transit politics here. It is really is too bad they did, but that can’t be undone, least of all by wishful thinking.

          • Paul Kishimoto

            I didn’t say a thing about undoing the past.

            ‘mikehatedit’ says Metrolinx is “uniquely positioned”, which isn’t entirely accurate: they occupy a role or space that can be filled by a single actor or remain vacant. Once, it was vacant; now the single actor is inadequate. If you believe the current, politically appointed body *would* continue the “shit record” (I tend to agree), the straightforward response is to either abolish and replace it, or reform it—for instance, by changing the appointments process. In the end those might not look very different.

            To say they *will* continue the “shit record” forfeits the chance to speak for that change, and also expresses a low opinion of those who would try to achieve it. It seems like you’d approve of such a change—why not support it?

  • Pauline

    I completely agree that to deal with gridlock we need fewer cars on the road. But where the hell are we going to put them? Every bus and train I take between 7:30 and 9 and from 4:15 to 6:30 is JAMMED TO OR PAST CAPACITY.

    • vampchick21

      Part of the idea of funding is that the money raised/earmarked/dedicated to transit would include buying more trains/subway trains/streetcars/buses that would accomodate more people. That plus extra routes and lines and increased service which also accomodates more people. Not really hard when you pause to think clearly.

    • Anonymous

      More buses perhaps?

  • Anonymous

    The easiest thing Toronto can do now to improve its transit is more buses – either to eliminate overcrowding or boost frequency to turn-up-and-go levels.

  • National Transit Strategy

    Although various level of government chip in to fund public transit, investment is frequently on a one-off basis for larger projects such as the expansion of the YUS Subway Line and creation of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Both of these are fantastic, don’t get me wrong – but there is so much more we can do.

    Right now, we are the only G8 country without a national transit strategy, meaning that there is no predictable, long-term funding mechanism in place. Municipalities across Canada can not plan ahead and expand transit service if there is no guarantee that the Federal government will provide funding five years down the road. This lack of planning directly results in overcrowding during peak hours and cuts to routes not in the downtown core.

    The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Karen Leibovici said it best: “It’s time we started planning in decades, not just years”. We need a National Transit Strategy now! Visit us at:

    • Anonymous

      Really? The UK and USA have national transit strategies? Please tell me where they are!

      • Paul Kishimoto — the focus (and much of the funding) are on cars and roads, but the Congress has passed bills about every five years laying out transportation policy, which is the subject of extensive research and debate. You will also hopefully recall Republican governors thumbing their noses at billions offered for states to build high-speed rail.

        The UK, Parliament involved itself in creating Transport for London; this would be the equivalent of the Federal government passing legislation to create a body with the scope of Metrolinx.

        Compare also: “safety, safety, safety” “We plan and invest in transport infrastructure to keep the UK on the move.”

        We (Canada) are genuinely backwards on this.

        • Anonymous

          The UK parliament created Transport for London because it was and is the only legislative body for England. No-one else could create it. I have done a lot of professional transport work in the UK… transit is left up to local counties (or groups thereof) to decide funding levels and strategy. The UK national government only concerns itself with the national rail system (like Canada and VIA Rail), and international transportation (again, like Canada).

          (I would argue the USA’s transportation bills are mostly about funding – but I’m less familiar with the USA.)

  • VincentClement

    This comparisons with the US ignore that in addition to tax revenues, many US public transit projects are eligible for state and federal money. It’s much easier to convince the public to raise a sales tax by half percent when there is a stable pool of matching state and federal funding.

    In Canada, the Federal Government will always use the “public transit is a provincial and municipal responsibility but hey you could use that gas tax money we send you” (ignoring that the Federal Government funds other provincial responsibilities such as education and healthcare). Meanwhile, Provinces are hit and miss when it comes to transit funding.

  • Paul Hillier

    My Question is why doesn’t TTC make their money the way transit lines in Japan do by commercializing their properties and stations. They have the best public transit system in the world and it only makes sense to use that valuable land like they do in Tennoji station or Abenobashi, Umeda, Osaka stations or hell even shinjuku?