Historicist: Birth of a Public Transit Provider
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Historicist: Birth of a Public Transit Provider

As the TTC faces budget cuts during its 90th anniversary month, a look back at its beginnings as the successor to a decrepit, underfunded transit provider.

Mayor Thomas Langton "Tommy" Church (centre) at a gathering, c. 1915-1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 680.

While bulk purchase of tickets provided a discount (four for a quarter or 50 for $3.00 were the popular packs) and suburban riders who had paid two or three fares would save money, the level of the fare increase outraged Mayor Tommy Church. He refused to sign the final piece of legislation that transferred the TRC’s possessions to the TTC. “I won’t sign the bylaw and I am satisfied no court in the land could order me to do otherwise,” he told the press. Church tried to stall the transfer via city council, through proposals that included a 60-day stay of transfer (during which the City would run the system under the old five cent fare) and a public vote on the price hike. Church believed that despite an initial deficit, within five years the TTC would be profitable if it kept a lower fare. The mayor was unimpressed when the City’s legal counsel told him the City couldn’t run the system without an agency like the TTC and urged him to stop grandstanding. Church disregarded their advice and stormed out of a five-hour meeting which was held on August 31 to settle the transfer. Another councillor was appointed to act in the mayor’s stead, to provide the final signature. An angry Church lashed out at the majority of councillors who approved the bylaw, warning that they would be swept out of office in the following election. They weren’t.

Depending on which paper you read, the TTC’s first day was either a grand disaster (the staunchly pro-Church Telegram) or went well despite anticipated hiccups (the other dailies). The main problems were a low supply of 50-ticket books and delays on the old suburban routes as passengers swarmed conductors for transfers. In North Toronto, kinks in the extended routes caused extra fares to be applied for another week. The Telegram went out of its way to gather negative reports ranging from the specific, drivers missing stops, to the general, the still-used media staple that is outraged accounts from angry riders determined to never use public transit again. The paper reported that bicycle use was up on the TTC’s first day and that some automobile drivers picked up irritated passengers out of the kindness of their hearts. Letters printed over the next few days griped about the fare hike, some insistent and amnesiac: the TRC would have never allowed such a thing, claimed those who’d forgotten that provider’s infamous disadvantages. These tales of woe gave the impression that passengers unrealistically expected a one-day turnaround in service, exchange for higher fare. TTC officials claimed complaints were lower than expected and that while there were problems in the suburbs, downtown traffic flowed well.

Two of the many cartoons the Telegram published that criticized the TTC's seven cent fare. Left: the Telegram, August 26, 1921. Right: the Telegram, September 3, 1921.

During its first month of operation, the TTC (which wouldn’t change its name to the Toronto Transit Commission until the subway arrived in the 1950s) purchased the land that became the Hillcrest complex and launched its first bus line. Red replaced the TRC’s brown and TCR’s green as the colour of Toronto’s public transit. Most importantly, a three-year program to attend to the decay the TRC left behind was initiated. The higher fares that Tommy Church might have still grumbled about when he left the mayor’s chair at year’s end to sit as a Conservative MP in Ottawa helped the TTC provide Torontonians with a modern transit system. But subsequent generations of bureaucrats who delayed or delay much needed improvements and who have provided scant funding for public transit cripple the TTC, allowing it to limp along like the TRC did. Historic short-sightedness never did the TRC, the TTC, or Torontonian transit riders much good.

Additional material from Fifty Years of Progressive Transit: A History of the Toronto Transit Commission by John F. Bromley and Jack May (New York: Electric Railroaders’ Association, 1973), The TTC Story: The First Seventy-five Years by Mike Filey (Toronto: Dundurn, 1996), and the following newspapers: the September 1, 1921 edition of the Globe; the August 27, 1921 edition of the Mail and Empire; the September 1, 1921 edition of the Toronto Star; and the August 24, 1921, and September 1, 1921 editions of the Telegram.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.