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Our Great Transit Non-Debate

We are terrible at discussing transit in Toronto. What does this mean for the 2014 municipal election?

Photo by seango, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by seango, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

My fondest hope for the upcoming election campaign is that no candidate even mentions subways, streetcars, or LRTs. I want to hear about taxes, energy, the economy, bicycles, cars, the waterfront—anything but public transit. I want to live in a city where transit is simply taken for granted.

Alas, such a state of grace is likely decades away. Wordy chaos fills the void left by the absence of consistent long-range planning. Every candidate considers it his or her duty to champion a whole new transit plan, and citizens naively debate the merits of this or that option—as if it were actually possible to change direction every four years and get anywhere with projects that typically take a generation to achieve.

Mayoral candidate David Soknacki kicked off the latest round of transit football with his very first policy announcement, saying he would turn Rob Ford’s Scarborough subway back into an LRT, as originally planned. He’s probably right, but I just don’t want to hear about it.

This errant conversation first emerged in the 2010 campaign, showing how very far Toronto was from being a transit city, and it flowered into the main business of city council under the inane leadership of Rob Ford. Not content with changing direction every four years, council rolled the dice on generational investments closer to every four weeks.

Any hope that the provincial government and its Metrolinx agency might provide sober guidance vanished when cabinet ministers and Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard jumped into the game, wheeling and dealing with the worst of them.

The result has been massive confusion about where we’re heading and how, which stands as an open invitation to another round of fruitless pseudo-debate and grandstanding in the upcoming election.

Photo by St-Even, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

That’s not what happens in a transit city. Transit cities can be built only according to plans that span several election cycles. “They stick to those plans,” New York transit consultant Carol Konheim once told me, describing what is most distinctive about the most successful transit cities. “The plans go on for 25 years, and they actually get implemented. That’s the main lesson we have ignored in North America.”

And nowhere more emphatically than in Toronto, which has wasted 20 years building two subway lines on the basis of nothing more than temporary political advantage. Not coincidentally, both of those lines—Sheppard and the Spadina extension—are as close to useless operationally as heavy rail can be. They are world-class examples of how not to do it.

The Sheppard stub, which still carries fewer people than the busiest bus and streetcar routes, emerged from the bloody backrooms of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, saved from slaughter only because of its association with Mayor Mel Lastman of North York, an important ally, and the influential property developers in His Melship’s once-ample skirts. (Not saved was the partially built, NDP-favoured Eglinton subway, which the Tories filled back in at a further cost of $140-million, and which is now being re-excavated as part of the Eglinton LRT.)

Then the Liberals got a turn, and twisted planning priorities mercilessly until they yielded a rationale for an extension of the Spadina line past York University and up to an empty field in faraway Vaughan, a bizarre destination distinguished only as the political turf of former finance minister Greg Sorbara. It didn’t hurt that Mr. Sorbara’s brother, property developer Joseph Sorbara, was chair of the York University Development Corporation.

Although it will certainly provide luxury service to students and faculty of York University when it opens in 2016, the new line is unlikely to attract more than a handful of new users to the TTC. And riders using less favoured parts of the system are already paying heavily for the extravagance, suffering overcrowding and increasingly poor service while billions needed for worthwhile investments float up the river to Vaughan, where they will serve not to move people so much as to make local property owners rich.

The latest mess in Scarborough is thus all too true to type. What makes it perhaps even more pathetic is the fact that nobody stands to gain much from the ultimate decision about what to build and where—not even the political fixers who generally make such decisions. The fact is that Rob Ford is too stupid and too politically isolated to manage the usual shady deals required to build subways in Toronto.

Ford on transit is like someone who walks into a play midway through the third act and complains that it makes no sense. He has no idea what’s going on.

Then again, nobody else does either—not even Metrolinx, the provincial agency that was supposed to put an end to the wasteful political mess-making by creating a true long-term transit plan for the entire urban region. That plan now exists, and the new Eglinton LRT line is well underway. But the Scarborough debacle showed conclusively that Metrolinx has no actual authority to implement the plans it has made—especially if they counter the whims of some passing cabinet minister—let alone to finance them. What we’ve seen recently is Metrolinx blowing this way and that with every passing zephyr, bowing to the power of the moment, manoeuvring and manipulating along with everybody else.

So rather than being able to take transit for granted, we are faced with another round of agonizing debate. The more we hear about it, the more ground we seem to lose.


  • OgtheDim

    I take transit every day. Like hundreds of thousands of us here in this city. The TTC is the #1 thing city oriented that we use and are aware of. So, yes, its going to be talked about by politicians because its where more of us can relate.

    Yes, the discussion is messy. Its not easy. Its tough. People in power think its easy and make fools of themselves with maps. And the discussion seems endless

    But the discussion MUST happen, and MUST not be stopped from happening.

    Sorry, John, we know you are tired.

    But transit is too darn important to stop discussing.

    Cause when we stop discussing it, we get stuff like the luxury line to York and the stubway.

    So bring on the discussion. Lets talk about the subway to a Canadian Tire. Lets talk about unicorn emissions and pixie dust. Lets talk about GO, and the Relief Line only going to Pape. Lets talk about the St. Clair disaster, lets have people have at each other over LRT vs. streetcar.

    Because an educated voter is a damn site better then an uneducated one.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      ” Lets talk about the St. Clair disaster, and all that happened in that mess…”

      Was there a disaster on St Clair?

      • MaryL

        Yeah, but it was caused by unicorn emissions and pixie dust. Fucking unicorns.

      • OgtheDim

        The construction was a disaster. Personally I blame the local BIA’s and city councillors and Rogers and Toronto Hydro and the way the city went about things back then.

        The result is good.

        But the discussion of what happened there should not be avoided just because LRT is in play, or because people are tired of it, or because Ford is against streetcars.

        To me not discussing transit it like not discussing what you are going to eat that night. It has to be done.

        • andrewtraviss

          Definitely an issue worth discussion, but that’s not really a discussion “about transit”. That’s a discussion about short-sighted NIMBY-ism and piggybacking construction projects.

          The fact that a transit project was involved is not particularly important.

          Transit discussions shouldn’t be political at this point; the whole city is underserved, and political debate is a poor tool here. Whenever there’s a transit debate in Toronto, all participants are just abusing the file in order to gain political capital, rather than actually trying to solve the problem.

      • wklis

        It was the add-ons that made a mess of St. Clair. They added the underground wiring (good, but added to the cost); they added left turn lanes, took away sidewalk space; they kept the stop spacing; slowing the streetcars; transit priority, what transit priority(?) the left turn single-occupant cars get the real priority.

      • nevilleross

        No, there wasn’t-he’s just being full of it, because he thinks that the car should be king over everything, and streetcars/light rail should just be an adjunct to the car, out of sight and out of mind.

        • OgtheDim

          Really? You think I think like that?!?! Based on what?

          Please, find me a writing by me on here, on the Globe’s comment boards, on Steve Munro’s site, or anywhere that supports the idea that I’m a car lover.

          Oh…you mean you JUST MADE A ROB FORD LIKE ASSUMPTION about me based on a phrase i used to describe something?

          WOW….nice of you to stereotype. Are you taking lessons from Doug?

          What….its OK to stereotype if its in a good cause?


          Oh, and sorry, we are not allowed to admit that the construction process involveed in the St. Clair project was botched in getting it done?

          Didn’t get the memo….

        • vampchick21

          Ummm….he’s not in the car is king camp. I think what he was saying went right over your head. Read it again.

    • torontothegreat

      The only “disaster” on St. Clair was that it completely transformed the neighbourhood and gave it new life.

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    Getting rid of our clown, lying, egotist, halfwit, buffoon, gluttonous, disgusting oaf of a Mayor should be our first priority. Transit should be discussed though — it is the backbone of this city. Of course, it’s handy for the politicians that so many people are ignorant about transit — witness all the misinformation about LRT in the recent Scarby subway extension debate. What we need are not just new plans but new ideas perhaps on how to stop the madness of constant plans changes -giving Metrolinx some teeth or appointing a transit Czar. None of this would benefit the politicians who want to buy our votes. I don’t have a lot of hope for the education of the masses on this matter. The people yelling for the subway extension wanted the very same thing on Sheppard where the subway is already waaaayy underused. Many of those people drive cars and are driving the debate around transit too. Transit is seen as a pain in the butt to these people, not as important to the city. That attitude needs to change. Hard to do in car-centric North America.

  • Whaaa… ?

    “We are terrible at discussing transit in Toronto.”
    But the question to ask is *why* we are terrible at discussing transit.

    And the answer to that is because of disruptive dummies like Rob and Doug Ford.

    • sol_chrom

      They’re part of the reason, but not all of it. It’s easy to pinpoint them because they’re so egregiously, belligerently ignorant, but they didn’t arise out of nowhere.

  • Kivi Shapiro

    I’m not sure it’s a safe assumption that all those people running down the stairs to the Yonge line at Sheppard are coming off the Sheppard line.

    • nomoremicrophones

      there’s a lot of us coming from the commercial buildings – the yonge-sheppard centre, for instance – in the area.

  • OgtheDim

    Well, your use of “is getting built up” is about as scientific as the same stuff being thrown out about the Sheppard line and the Scarborough extension, so I suppose.

    Projections are for not enough ridership to support full trains all the time, so the TTC is planning, IIRC, to only send one out of 2 trains north of Downsview.

  • CaligulaJones

    I’m in the “put all 50 ideas in a hat, pull out three, cost them, and pick the one in the middle” camp.

    Can’t be much worse…

  • d__t

    The subsidy for the Sheppard stubway is around $8 per rider.
    The rest of the subway system is around 50¢