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Are You Feeling Congested? Tell the City of Toronto How to Improve Your Commute

Toronto's chief planner wants to know what matters most to you in a transit system, and how you're most comfortable paying for it.

Toronto does not have a good track record when it comes to building new transit. We have been presented with more maps, brightly coloured lines optimistically stretching in all directions, than we can count. We have started projects, dug holes, and then filled them in again. We have signed agreements, ripped them up, and then gone back to the originals. There is no one culprit that is to blame, but the end result is a city full of people who are profoundly exhausted, and profoundly skeptical.

But one of the few things that just about everyone in Toronto agrees on is that we’re in the middle of a mobility crisis. People simply can’t get where they need to go, quickly, safely, and comfortably enough right now. We all know that we’re in trouble, and that we need a long-term strategy to tackle the problem. We need, in particular, a strategy that, once settled on, is settled. One that actually sticks. It takes decades to build a transit system, but we have elections for some level of government every other year; we need a transit plan that can survive those elections, persist until it is actually implemented in full.

Earlier this week Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, laid out a plan for holding public consultations on the long-term future of transit in Toronto. The first phase of that consultation, an interactive survey, is now online. And though we are a city that is both exhausted and skeptical, though the survey is imperfect and is just a first step, that survey is important.

Online survey: which criteria should we use to make transit decisions?

Which tools should we use to pay for transit?

Online survey: which principle should we use in making transit decisions, and which tools should we use to pay for transit?

The online consultation addresses two main questions—which criteria we should use to evaluate transit options, and which tools we should use to pay for it—and it feeds into two separate processes. One is Toronto’s review of its Official Plan, the overarching strategic document for managing growth. The other is Metrolinx’s decision on how to pay for the Big Move (its plan for building a major round of transit across the region). Because of the latter, the survey provides information about the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area as a whole, and calculates how much each potential revenue tool (a portion of sales tax proceeds, say, or a congestion charge) could bring in based on regional application. And this is our biggest concern about the consultation.

As we have learned over the years, banking on the provincial government (Metrolinx is a provincial body) to do what’s required to meet all of Toronto’s transit needs is futile. What we need is to know not just how Metrolinx could proceed, but how Toronto could, and this survey should include some Toronto-specific information to help that conversation along. Participants should be able to learn how much each revenue tool could bring in if applied just in Toronto, and which tools Toronto is empowered to use on its own, without needing to lobby Queen’s Park to change legislation.

But there is one very basic and very important thing this survey gets right: it doesn’t ask whether we should pay to build transit, it assumes that we must. There is no checkbox for “I think government should build transit within its current resources.” The value of that omission is huge. There are no alternatives when it comes to the fundamental question. We need to solve this problem, and that is going to take money. The consultation trusts the people of Toronto to be grown-ups to this extent: nobody is promising that the magical private sector will altruistically provide, or that a thorough efficiency review will yield enough change from the TTC couch cushions to buy whole new transit lines. We are, at least, starting honestly. We’re going to need to raise a lot of money to develop a more robust transportation system, and we’re going to need to keep spending money in order to operate and maintain it once it’s built.

This is not a unique state of affairs: we are not the first ones who’ve been faced, finally, with the realization that we simply have to bite the bullet and spend more to build a better-working city. Nor is it a bad thing—the only cities that don’t need to invest in their infrastructure are the ones that are dying. Other strong, growing cities have adopted dedicated revenue tools for the sake of building transit, passed new taxes and levies, and have seen that the sky didn’t come down.

We’ve been trying to take short cuts for a long time, and now we know where they lead: with some of us shivering, waiting for the fourth Dufferin bus; with some of us too scared by road conditions to bike to work; and with some of us fuming on the Gardiner Expressway. The short cuts are a dead end.

Take the City of Toronto’s online survey about transit here.

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