Canvassers prepare to hit the streets.
In proclaiming the Transit City light rail plan “over” last week, on his first day in office, Mayor Ford may have inadvertently created the conditions for a new beginning.
On Saturday, supporters of the provincially backed plan gathered to canvass homes in the Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue area, in an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of light rail in Toronto. Yonge and Eglinton had been chosen because it falls within the jurisdiction of councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence), Ford’s pick for the next chair of the TTC.
The canvass had been organized informally, on Facebook, by Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, a Toronto Public Library board member and (defeated) Toronto District School Board trustee candidate in this year’s municipal election.
Almost two hundred people had indicated on the event’s Facebook page that they’d be in attendance, but, in typical Facebook fashion, only about thirty actually showed. Chaleff-Freudenthaler was pleased with the turnout.
“It could have been five people, it could have been five hundred people. And I’m thrilled to see what we’ve got here today,” he said.
“The plan is to tell people that it’s not about the name of one plan or another. It’s not about one politician proposing it or another,” he continued. The objective, instead, was to engage voters in a conversation about the future of public transit in Toronto, while emphasizing that work on Transit City’s proposed light rail lines is already underway, and would be difficult and possibly costly to call off.
Chaleff-Freudenthaler delivered a brief instructional speech, during which canvassers were given clipboards with stacks of photocopied flyers (headline: “KEEP RAPID TRANSIT ON TRACK”), a list of talking points, a map with a route to follow, and a signature sheet for a petition to be delivered to Ford and Stintz. It was below freezing outside, so all this paperwork was put into gloved and mittened hands.
Among the canvassers was Jon Sohn, a tall guy in a navy coat and toque, with a calm, empathetic demeanor. He said he had never been involved in a political campaign before. A computer programmer by profession, he’d decided to participate because he was dismayed by the mayor’s abrupt decision to cancel a plan that was years in the making.
“The only person I know who’s against it is Rob Ford,” he said. Most of the other canvassers we spoke to had similar backgrounds and reasons for having come.
It was time to head out, so Sohn assembled a group consisting of himself, his friend Joel Dalton, and Martin Abela, who had arrived a little late. A long-time Toronto resident, Abela was perhaps in his forties, and said he’d participated in similar political actions in the past, including one in support of the often-derided St. Clair Avenue streetcar right-of-way, completed last year after delays and cost overruns. He unzipped his leather jacket to show off his sweatshirt, which had a picture of a TTC streetcar on it.
The three canvassers walked north on Yonge Street until they arrived at their designated cross street: an upper-middle-class haven of two-storey, one-family homes, most of which had cars in their driveways.
After about an hour of going from house to house, Abela knocked on a door, and a woman in her twenties answered. He launched into the speech he’d been refining over the course of the afternoon: he told the woman that more than one hundred million dollars had been spent already on Transit City, and that canceling the light rail plan could be costly. He told her that Ford’s preferred solution, an extended Sheppard subway line, would provide considerably less track distance than the light rail alternative, but for about the same amount of money. Eventually, the woman cut him off. She was from Calgary, she said, and, while she liked her home city’s light rail network, she couldn’t sign the petition in good conscience. As Abela was about to leave, a voice from somewhere inside the house cried, “Wait!” The woman’s mother ran to the door and asked if Abela was there about Transit City.
“Have you got a petition I can sign so that son of a bitch doesn’t cancel this?”
Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler warms up the crowd.
Most reactions to the entreaties of the canvassers were more moderate. Several people said they’d heard of Transit City, but hadn’t given much thought to it. A few people strongly disapproved of Ford’s attempt to cancel light rail expansion and signed the petition without much urging. Many people weren’t home.
One man spent five minutes arguing calmly with Sohn and Dalton about the negative impact he thought light rail would have on car traffic. Another cited the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way as evidence that above-ground rail doesn’t work in Toronto.
The last stop of the night was a home like any other in the neighbourhood. It was getting late, and Abela, who had already put in a respectable few hours, had left for the evening. A woman in her sixties opened the door. “I have both thoughts,” she said, after Sohn and Dalton had given their pitch. “But my husband is a structural engineer and he wants the subway because he thinks it will last longer.”
Sohn and Dalton offered her the petition. “He won’t sign it and I have to back him on this,” she said. And then she called her husband to the door. He invited the two canvassers inside. Everyone moved into the living room and took seats on beige leather couches and chairs.
“Subways are the way to go,” said the engineer.
“Toronto is going to be a major city, world class,” he continued. He verbally ticked off a list of other world-class cities: London; New York; Washington, D.C. “Do you see streetcars and light rail?” he asked, rhetorically. “No.”
His point was that subways can handle more density than light rail, and might therefore be useful for a longer period of time. The TTC has given this some consideration: they’ve forecasted ridership demands to 2031 for the Eglinton, Sheppard, and Finch corridors where light rail is planned, and found that the densities wouldn’t be enough to justify subways. But the engineer was thinking further ahead than 2031, to a time when Toronto might be as populous and concentrated as places like London and Manhattan are today.
He was dismissive of the political situation that makes it difficult for the City to secure money for public transit from higher levels of government. (Money is scarce in the first place, and spending the funds budgeted for light rail on subways, instead, would require provincial permission and would necessitate breaking contracts with equipment vendors.) “You’re talking about a money problem, here,” he said. “Not the right solution.”
“Once you make a commitment to a system, it’s very, very, very expensive to convert years later to the utopian ideal,” he said. “Commit to the right system. Rob Ford is absolutely right.” The engineer said this with an air of finality. His decades of experience had left him certain of at least that much.
After the debate had gone on for about twenty minutes, during which Sohn and Dalton did their best to articulate their side of the issue, the engineer’s wife put an end to it, perhaps sensing that the conversation had arrived at an impasse. There was no acrimony in the room; everyone seemed grateful to have had the opportunity to speak and be heard.
Back on Yonge Street, it was already dark out. Dalton and Sohn prepared to separate for the evening, to pursue their respective Saturday night plans. As they walked toward the subway station, they discussed what the engineer had said.
“Have you ever heard the term ‘vapourware?'” asked Sohn.
“No, what’s that?” asked Dalton.
“It’s when there’s a piece of software that’s had lots of development and resources put into it, but it never materializes. You can see it, but you can’t ever touch it.”
“To me, subways are vapourware. Whatever else Transit City is, at least it’s real.”
Photos by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist. Dotan, Torontoist’s senior editor, is also Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler’s partner; she was not involved in editing this article.