Public Works: Selling Transit Spending
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Public Works: Selling Transit Spending

If Los Angeles can get people on board with public transit, surely Toronto can do the same.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}MrDanMofo{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr pool{/a}.

The city that invented drive-through living wants to make transit cool. Los Angeles is having some success at rebranding its Metro system as a fun, hip way to get around, rather than the transport of last resort for the indigent and unlicensed.

Michael Lejeune, creative director of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told the New York Times that 18 months after the introduction of a breezy new ad campaign back in 2003 (“Metropolitan Transit Authority? Oh, please. Just say Go Metro”), discretionary ridership jumped by eight per cent, with no other changes to the service.

Like L.A., Toronto needs to get people out of their cars in order to solve gridlock issues. Even so, it’s not as though the TTC is suffering from a paucity of users. From October 2011 to October 2012, the TTC saw a record 510 million Rocket riders, and key routes like the Yonge subway line are already jammed beyond capacity at peak periods.

It’s not like we’re standing still. Giant boring machines are prepping to grind new CHUD corridors along the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown LRT route, and sleek new Jetson-style streetcars should be awing the tourists by 2014. But that’s a drop in the bucket, and beyond some irrational obstructionism from Mayor Rob “subways or nothing” Ford, it’s principally lack of funding that prevents Toronto from building the system it needs.

Making transit trendy isn’t our problem; the problem is finding the money to make it bigger and better. The TTC doesn’t need more people on board its vehicles. It needs people on board with the idea that transit is something worth paying for.

And that’s where a little marketing could help.

Appeals to the public have been tried before. Back in 2007, former mayor David Miller looked to coax the feds into giving cities one out of the six cents per dollar then being collected through the goods and services tax (although the money would not have been allocated specifically for transit). The effort included a full-on marketing campaign intended to rally taxpayer support around the idea and pressure the government into acquiescing.

It didn’t work. The Harper government, maybe having concluded that a simple refusal wouldn’t demonstrate sufficient contempt for the request, subsequently knocked a penny off the GST, saving the average consumer about enough for a weekly latte while denying Toronto access to an estimated $1.3 billion annually. Today the “One Cent Now!” website is 404, a figurative gore-dripping head on a pike warning away others who might be thinking of looting the federal treasury.

The experience taught us not just that advertising doesn’t always work, but also that begging mama and papa government to let us spend our own money is usually a lost cause. That means we need new revenue tools, which is a tactful way of saying shaking down folks like you and me, possibly through a regional sales tax, road tolls, or congestion charges for downtown drivers.

And here’s where clever and informative marketing comes in. While most people are understandably opposed to having more of their paycheque siphoned off into the public purse, they can also be civic-minded if convinced the funds will be used wisely. In 2008, L.A. residents voted for a half-penny sales tax to fund transportation initiatives (although a move earlier this month to extend the tax by 30 years fell just short of the necessary two-thirds approval).

Torontonians are at least as aware of the value of a robust public transport structure as Angelenos. In April of this year, a poll indicated that 74 per cent of Torontonians would support a regional sales tax to pay for new transit.

The City would still need approval from Queen’s Park for any such initiatives, but that wouldn’t be impossible if sufficient public support could be mustered.

Sexy ads and celebrity spokespeople (“Mike Bullard takes the bus!”) won’t be enough, of course. “Respect for taxpayers” has been sloganized into stupidity, but it’s actually going to be a requirement if we’re going to be asked to crack open our piggy banks during tough times.

But if council can agree upon and explain a coherent and cost-effective plan, there’s no reason the public wouldn’t get behind it.

It can be done. Decide on and cost a realistic transit plan. Lobby Queen’s Park for the new revenue powers. Sell the city on the idea through honesty, education, and explanation of just how much traffic congestion costs us. And maybe we’ll get our subways after all.