Learning from OneCity
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Learning from OneCity

In less than a month, OneCity was unveiled, lauded, mocked, and sidelined. How to do better next time.

Karen Stintz and Glenn De Baeremaeker explaining the OneCity plan at a press conference last month. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/photopia/7455261836/"}HiMY SYeD{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

TTC Chair Karen Stintz and Vice-Chair Glenn De Baeremaeker formally unveiled a sweeping transit plan they dubbed OneCity on June 27. Exactly two weeks later, city councillors of all political stripes proclaimed that plan dead, as they voted to have City staff conduct a study of long-term transit options—more or less the same study they’d already called for back in March. OneCity’s authors (who also include Josh Colle and Joe Mihevc) put a brave face on things, but almost none of their plan had survived long enough to make it to the floor of council, much less to get approved after debate.

Criticism has been sharp on all sides, from both politicians and the press. Certainly, there is much to lament in how events unfolded. But there is much to be learned, as well.

There are no shortcuts.
The question on everyone’s lips this week was: “How did OneCity fall apart so fast?” It’s a bit of a misdescription, though: OneCity was never really pulled together in the first place.

For any policy, but especially for something as significant as transit, there is no substitute for groundwork. OneCity was a concatenation of many previous transit plans that are sitting on shelves in various government and TTC offices (almost none of its elements were new) and some informal surveying of councillors about what transit, hypothetically, they’d like to see built. It was, as one councillor described it to us, a “map of needs.” But you cannot build an entire city’s worth of transit simply by glueing together pieces of plans that others before you have left behind—and you certainly can’t develop a funding proposal for such a network on the fly.

This is a question of both policy and politics. The authors of OneCity developed the plan almost entirely on their own. They didn’t consult with staff, they didn’t consult with counterparts in surrounding municipalities who are also struggling to find ways to raise funds for transit, and most of all they didn’t consult with their council colleagues, many of whom learned about the existence of OneCity from the newspapers. Those OneCity authors then charged their colleagues with being poor sports, saying they didn’t back the plan because they felt excluded from its development process.

Well, maybe they did feel excluded—and maybe that was a perfectly reasonable reaction. Council is not parliament: it has no parties, no whips, no cabinet. If a group of councillors has an idea, those councillors need to build consensus in order to advance it. It it right for them to need consensus in order to advance it. No matter how exciting Stintz, De Baeremaeker, et al. found their transit plan, they should have sought input from others and developed it more collaboratively, from the ground up. The art of municipal governance is precisely in knowing how to create such buy-in, and devising policies that can attract such support.

It’s easier to stop something than to start it.
As it became clear that OneCity was falling apart, some began to wonder whether it spelled the end of the dynamic of the past year, a dynamic that saw broad coalitions of councillors unite in opposition to the mayor when it came to major policies: the Port Lands, budget cuts, the revival of Transit City.

There’s no reason to think this is the case; the mayor has still lost many more friends than he’s made. But it does highlight how much more difficult it is to to build support for new policy than it is to band people together to defend an existing one. All those previous cases of coalition building were, in a very important way, reactive: they were responses to the mayor, to a set of circumstances that was already in place. Rob Ford wanted to alter plans for the waterfront, to cut programs that residents relied on, to halt a transit proposal that was already approved. Councillors rallied against him more easily because the target was clearly defined, the agenda already set, things already underway—they had to react, or else the decision was going to happen without them.

Getting something started from scratch is an entirely different beast. There’s no external circumstance compelling councillors to act in these cases, so it will only be via goodwill and genuine enthusiasm that any new projects will launch successfully.

The mayor’s vanishing act is taking its toll.
For some time, City Hall observers have noted with concern the diminishing role of our mayor in municipal affairs. He campaigned on a platform of gravy train–stopping and waste-cutting, but, beyond that, it was never clear what he actually wanted to do. For a $30 billion, 170-kilometre transit plan to be presented by the TTC chair independently of the mayor’s office, without Ford’s direction or input or as part of a larger policy framework, is astonishing.

That the plan failed so quickly is due in large part to how it was handled by its authors; that it emerged in the first place is due to the fact that councillors—and not just the OneCity authors—are desperate to be part of a government that actually gets things done for Toronto.

There is a dearth of leadership at City Hall, and councillors are trying to step into the breach. That they did it so inelegantly in this case is unfortunate, but they made the attempt because there is a real void that needs filling.

Ambition is good.
Though the excitement with which OneCity was met dissipated quickly, that initial rush of interest and buzz tells us something: many Torontonians are desperate for ambitious plans that are worthy of the kind of city we often say we are, but fail to be. Our biggest need, confirmed by every planning expert and endorsed by every poll, is for transportation reform, the centrepiece of which is a transit network that is robust enough to move many more of us, well-funded enough to provide attractive service levels, and well-run enough that riding it isn’t experienced as a hardship.

Transit City—or, more accurately, the scaled-down version of Transit City which we have now—is a good first step. But nobody thinks it is enough. The OneCity authors were entirely right to recognize this, and to try to build on that council decision and generate momentum for further, and much more ambitious, transit planning. We needed it 20 years ago, and for all the vexed debates and plans that have gone nowhere, we cannot afford to stop trying.

Transit isn’t free; we need more politicians willing to say so.
Polls also show that Torontonians are increasingly willing to spend some money if they know it will go to building a robust transit network. In this, residents are far ahead of their elected officials, many of whom are just cowards when it comes to the question of funding.

Public transit costs money. A lot of money. We cannot have the things we need for free, and we cannot pay for them by nipping and tucking existing budgets or telling councillors they have to spend less on paper clips. We need new revenue tools that provide dedicated funds for transit—its construction, operation, and maintenance—and we need politicians with the intestinal fortitude to say that, election cycles be damned.

The complex, tax-increase-by-another-name property-assessment tool OneCity proposed wasn’t the best, perhaps (a staff report on revenue tools will be coming out in October, and Metrolinx will release its own report on the subject next year), but that doesn’t actually matter as much as the fact that it was proposed at all. By including a suggestion for a new funding tool, OneCity advanced, if only a tiny bit, our collective discourse on this issue. The message that transit plans need to be accompanied by funding strategies must be repeated as often as possible by as many people as possible. We need to get used to the thought that the transit system we need is going to be expensive, and the only way we’re going to do that is if more politicians are willing to say so.